WASHINGTON — House Democrats Tuesday called on Republicans to join them in supporting child nutrition programs from President Donald Trump’s 2020 budget proposal that would cut $1.7 billion in funding.
Trump’s budget plan, announced Monday, would leave 1.3 million children without free school meals, said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services.
“We know that many communities do face challenges in feeding their children, and as a Congress, we should do more, not less, to address these issues,” said Bonamici. “Unfortunately, yesterday the president made clear he does not share these goals.”
Child nutrition programs – the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, the Child and Adult Care Feeding Program and the Summer Food Service Program – provide meals for more than 30 million children.
According to Kentucky Rep. James Comer, the top Republican on the subcommittee, participation in child nutrition programs has decreased at least in part because of an increase in cafeteria operations costs, administrative paperwork, compliance rules and food waste have increased.
“However well-intentioned these requirements may be, they are limiting program effectiveness and causing students to forgo the meals they need,” said Comer. “Kids deserve healthy and nutritious meals at school, but if the federal government mandates meals that students won’t eat, then Washington is categorically failing to combat hunger.”
Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., said that the guidelines included by the Obama administration in the 2010 child nutrition law renewal are inefficient and overfunded. The act provides federal funding and oversight for the major child nutrition programs.
“Review of that act is long overdue,” said Thompson.
In the past, House Republicans have pushed for block grants in place of child nutrition programs to give states more flexibility in how they distribute funding to districts with students facing food insecurity.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior and School Nutrition Association – national advocacy groups for childhood nutrition programs – released a report last spring that recommended strategies to maximize the current child nutrition programs. The report opposed block grant funding for school meals.
Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, said in a telephone interview block grants are a “dangerous policy” that would shift funds away from the students in school meal programs and are especially harmful to communities hit by natural disasters.
“We are strongly opposed to any plan that block grant school meals. There are real dangers and you don’t need to look any further than the communities that have been ravaged by disasters. These communities would not receive additional funds to pay for students in need,” said Pratt-Heavner. “That could be devastating.”
Donna Martin, director of the school nutrition program for Burke County Public Schools in Georgia, told the subcommittee that her rural schools provide free and reduced lunches to 89 percent of their students.
Martin said more federal funding is needed to allow greater flexibility for schools and healthier meals for students in need.
“This makes it even more critical that we keep participation high by providing healthy, balanced and appealing meals to the students,” said Martin. “I am not here today to tell you that it is easy, but I am here to tell you that it is possible to meet nutrition standards and be financially solvent.”
Bonamici, along with Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., plans to reintroduce a bill from two years ago that would expand access to nutritious meals for young children by improving the existing Child and Adult Care Food Program through greater support of families who rely on full-day child care, a reduction in paperwork and streamlined guidelines.
“By expanding access to nutritious food, our nation’s children can lead healthier lives,” said Bonamici.
For Martin, the federal government and states should work together to provide every student with a healthy breakfast and lunch. “Why is it the case that there are free books, free transportation, free computers but not free meals?”