House Republicans are fighting a little-noticed battle to roll back provisions of a 2010 school nutrition bill that provide students in high-poverty schools with free and more nutritious lunches. If successful, their efforts will greatly reduce both the number of schools and students eligible for the free subsidized meal program and the federal outlay for the meal program.
The bill, known as the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, originally provided free lunches and after-school meals for every student in schools where at least 40% of the student body hailed from low-income households. Last week, Republican lawmakers on the House Education and Workforce Committee began pushing to grant this privilege only when a 60% majority of a school’s students are from poverty-stricken households (for a family of four this translates to earning less than $31,000 annually).
This provision, which provides all students at low-income schools with free lunches, is known as community eligibility, and has been widely applauded by lawmakers and advocates for for eliminating meal applications and the stigmatized school-lunch line. According to Zoe Nuerberger of the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities (CBPP), instituting community eligibility would “shift resources from paperwork to higher-quality meals and other educational opportunities.”
Moreover, a 2014 CBPP study found that high-poverty neighborhoods “can impair children’s cognitive development, school performance, mental health, and long-term physical health — even if the family itself is not low-income.” All students, whether low-income or not, would therefore benefit in both their health and their education from an expanded free lunch program. Indeed in such schools, even those who don’t officially qualify for free meals are often little better off than their peers, and will often skip meals to save money. Providing universal free lunches in these high-poverty schools would ensure that children’s’ nutrition and educational performance would not suffer as a result of economic disadvantages.
If passed, the new Republican-proposed standard for community eligibility would revoke the status from as many as 18,600 schools serving around 8 million children. This represents a significant portion of the 30.5 million kids nationwide who are served daily by the free lunch program. All of these children will suffer if House Republicans succeed in repealing another provision in the 2010 bill that increased federal contributions to the school meal program and required cafeterias to serve a healthier menu by increasing the use of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and cutting back on sugars,fats, and junk foods.
The issues of funding and health in the school lunch program are intricately linked, as the current pitiful level of funding leaves schools with only a dollar and change to spend on each meal. With so little monetary leeway, the schools inevitably fall back on the cheapest options to keep within the budget, and that means generally dismal-quality unhealthy boxed lunches. The 2010 bill has been a tremendous success for low-income students yet Republicans, fretting about “nanny-state lunches,” are intent on repealing the provisions that have benefited millions of kids.
If the new amendments proposed by House Republicans are enacted, tens of millions of low-income children throughout the country – many of whom have no other reliable source of food – will be left with unhealthy, low-quality and prohibitively expensive school lunches while schools themselves will continue to be burdened with the academic and behavioral issues associated with poverty, hunger, and low nutrition. And they have the audacity to claim that “The reforms in this legislation will allow states and schools to better serve their students and families.”
James DeVinne is a student at American University in Washington, DC majoring in International Service with a focus on the Middle East and South Asia. He is a founding member of Occupy Baltimore and interns at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.