As a school nutrition director and local faith leaders, feeding the hungry is a fundamental responsibility, so today we must speak out in opposition to the recent congressional House bill to reauthorize child nutrition programs (HR 5003).
Our need to speak out is all the more urgent because of Speaker Paul Ryan’s new anti-poverty plan, which builds on one of the most damaging parts of the child nutrition bill: transforming school meal programs into a block grant. Block grants restrict funding for critical safety net programs in exchange for states’ ability to forgo most federal program rules. These rules exist to ensure equal access for all in need, equal resources to meet those basic needs, and safeguards that make sure programs are meeting their goals.
The Child Nutrition Program that is reauthorized every five years expired in September 2015, and the House and Senate have turned the reauthorization into a political food fight. The Senate worked with child nutrition advocates and reached a bipartisan compromise bill (Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016) that promised to continue to uphold our commitment to feed children so they are prepared to learn. The House bill erases much of the progress we have made in the last three years in nutrition standards and ability to feed more hungry kids.
Last fall, the Congressional Budget Office warned, “Block grants that are smaller than the funding that current legislation would provide would probably eliminate access to nutrition programs for some children and reduce it for others. Such grants would also leave the programs unable to respond automatically to economic downturns.”
The proposed three-state block grant pilot would reduce funding to schools by eliminating 0.06 cents per lunch received for meeting federal nutrition standards and 0.29 cents per paid lunch. If an increase of need occurs, such as it does during an economic downturn, funding does not increase. Schools already struggle to cover expenses with the small amount we are reimbursed for meals. In the Spokane community, block grants would result in an estimated annual loss of over $950,000.
Ryan’s vague poverty plan may not use the term “block grant,” but we cannot mistake it for anything else. In addition, his plan goes far beyond school meal programs to also encompass food stamps, housing, health care and more. Ryan’s 2014 budget proposal included block grant plans for 11 anti-poverty programs; the new plan refers to many, many more safety net programs that protect our most vulnerable neighbors now.
As part of the federal safety net, school meal programs promise that all children – regardless of where they live or how poor they are – can count on two nutritious meals a day. In our community, over 34,000 low-income schoolchildren rely on that commitment. The House child nutrition bill would disregard that promise, leaving our children’s nutrition and well-being up to the whims of state lawmakers, state budgets, and the competing demands that too often end up neglecting the needs of low-income people. This bill also opens the door for Congress to walk away from its commitments in other food assistance programs, housing, child care and more.
As community leaders who are committed to feeding the hungry, we urge U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers to protect the 1 in 5 children in our state who face hunger and to oppose HR 5003.
Kim Elkins is the nutrition services director for Mead School District. The Rev. James E. Waggoner Jr. is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane. The Rev. Martin Wells is bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Eastern Washington and Idaho Synod.
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