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House bill would roll back free and reduced-price school meals

Students wait to pay for their lunches in the cafeteria at Clyde A. Erwin Middle School on  April 8, 2015, in Asheville, N.C. Schools are required to place fruits and vegetables on students’ plates, and many students  toss them untouched into the trash. (Angeli Wright / Associated Press)
Students wait to pay for their lunches in the cafeteria at Clyde A. Erwin Middle School on April 8, 2015, in Asheville, N.C. Schools are required to place fruits and vegetables on students’ plates, and many students toss them untouched into the trash. (Angeli Wright / Associated Press)
By Mary Clare Jalonick Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Fewer students would receive free and reduced-price meals at school under legislation that Republicans pushed through a House committee Wednesday.

On a vote of 20-14, the Education and Workforce Committee backed the bill, which would scale back the number of schools in which all students receive free or reduced-price meals. The measure would allow a trial period of so-called block grants for school meals in three states – meaning those states would no longer receive unlimited federal dollars for students who qualify for the free and reduced-price lunches, and states wouldn’t have to follow most federal nutrition standards.

The legislation, which the full House will consider, would also roll back some healthier school nutrition rules championed by first lady Michelle Obama. Some schools say they are too restrictive and the healthier meals are not appetizing enough to students.

Republicans, including bill sponsor Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana and committee chairman John Kline of Minnesota, said the changes would help redirect money to other programs while ensuring that those with the highest need are still guaranteed meals.

Hunger and nutrition advocates from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the American Heart Association sharply criticized the legislation, saying it could mean some children go hungry at school.

“The bill would significantly weaken access to healthy, nutritious foods for our nation’s children,” said Dr. Benard Dreyer, president of the pediatrics group.

The block grant provision, added by amendment in Wednesday’s committee meeting, even prompted opposition from the School Nutrition Association, which has called for major changes in the school meal standards put in place in recent years.

The group, which represents school nutrition directors and the companies that sell food to schools, called the block grant idea “reckless” and said it would be a first step toward eliminating the federal guarantee that all children have access to the nutrition they need at school.

The block grants “are an opening salvo in an aggressive, alarming attack on the future of school meals,” said Jean Ronnei, head of that group.

The bill would raise the threshold for a government program called community eligibility, in which schools in districts with high poverty rates can provide free meals to all students at the school.

Republicans said it would better target taxpayer money by scaling back free meals for the some of the students that attend those high-poverty schools, but don’t individually qualify for free or reduced-price meals. They noted that the bill provides an increase in federal reimbursements for school breakfasts.

“This is hardly unreasonable and it’s hardly unfair,” said Rokita.

The bill would allow a wider variety of foods to be sold in lunch lines, an attempt to provide flexibility to schools that have complained that the Obama administration’s standards are too strict. Nutrition advocates said that move could allow some kids to skirt the nutrition standards.

Democrats objected to the efforts to save money on school meals and to loosen the nutrition standards. Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, the top Democrat on the panel, said the bill would “cut budgets instead of feeding our children.”

The partisan split on the House panel was in contrast to a bipartisan Senate compromise. With the support of Democrats, the GOP-led Senate Agriculture Committee passed legislation in January that would ease requirements for whole grains in school meals and delay a deadline to cut sodium levels, among other changes. The House bill goes much further.

The Obama administration’s healthier school meal rules have been phased in since 2012 and set fat, sugar and sodium limits on foods in the lunch line and beyond. They require more whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

Schools have long been required to follow government nutrition rules if they accept federal reimbursements for free and reduced-price meals for low-income students, but the new standards are stricter.

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