NSAC's Blog

House Passes Controversial Child Nutrition Reauthorization Amidst Growing Opposition

May 20, 2016

An elementary student in line for lunch. Photo credit: USDA.

An elementary student in line for lunch. Photo credit: USDA.

Eight months after the last iteration of the Child Nutrition Act expired, the House Education and Workforce Committee this week advanced a controversial Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization (CNR) out of committee. After several hours of discussion and 31 proposed amendments, the “Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016” (H.R. 5003) passed by a 20 to 14 vote, with all but one Republican voting in favor of the bill and all Democrats opposed.

CNR is a critical piece of legislation that reauthorizes all the federal childhood nutrition programs including: school meals; WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children); and the Farm to School Grant Program, which helps to connect schools and their students to food from local farmers and producers. The release of the House CNR bill should have represented an important step in moving this legislation forward. However, given the partisan nature of the vote and the inclusion of a number of highly contested provisions, the bill’s path towards becoming law is murky at best. The House Committee bill did succeed in uniting in opposition nearly all of the advocacy groups working on the measure, a rare feat but one that suggests the reauthorization – already a year behind – may stall out again.

In the House, the Education and Workforce Committee has jurisdiction over CNR, while in the Senate it is the Senate Agriculture Committee. In January, the Senate Agriculture Committee marked-up and unanimously passed their own bipartisan version of the bill, the “Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016”. Unlike the House Committee bill, the Senate bill has the endorsement of most of the major advocacy groups. Further progress in the Senate, however, has been stalled by wide discrepancies in program cost estimates between the Senate Agriculture Committee and the Congressional Budget Office. If and when those discrepancies are cleared up, the bill will move to Senate floor action.

Farm to School Wins

While partisanship and opposition from anti-hunger, nutrition, school food, and farm groups overshadow the House CNR bill, a bright spot in the bill is its support for farm to school programming. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and National Farm to School Network are pleased that the House bill includes strong support for the Farm to School Grant Program, including an increase of $5 million in annual grant funding (from $5 to $10 million per year) for the program. This increase will go a long way toward helping school meal programs increase local food purchases and expand educational food and agriculture activities. Increased funding and programmatic improvements for Farm to School are now included in both the House and Senate bills and supported on a bipartisan basis.

The Farm to School Grant Program was first funded in the 2010 Child Nutrition Act reauthorization, also known as the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” (HHFKA). The 2010 Act provided $5 million in annual, mandatory funding for the grant program to help schools source local, nutritious foods, help children develop healthy eating habits, and increase local farmers’ access to this important emerging market.

Since the Farm to School Grant program was launched in 2012, funded projects have provided significant economic opportunities for farmers and local agriculture-related businesses, including processors and distributors. However, as a result of the high volume of interest in and need for farm to school programs, demand for the grants has dramatically exceeded available funding. For example, between 2012 and 2015 only 20 percent of eligible applicants were able to receive grant funding.

Section 109 of Title I of the House Bill includes the following changes:

  • Doubled Funding for Farm to School Grant Program – The bill doubles mandatory, annual funding (from $5 to $10 million) for the grant program. This increase will make it possible for nearly 3 million additional students nationwide to access farm to school programs each year.
  • Expands Access for Eligible Applicants – In addition to local school districts, the bill provides flexibility for preschools, summer food service program sites, and after school programs to participate in the Farm to School Grant Program.
  • Increased Opportunities for All Producers – The bill includes increased outreach to beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. It also enhances access to farm-fresh and culturally significant foods for tribal schools and feeding programs.
  • Reduces Regulatory Barriers – In order promote increased farmer participation in farm to school, the bill calls on USDA to explore ways to reduce regulatory barriers to farm to school sales.

Stakeholder Group Concerns Grow

Although the House bill included increased support of farm to school programs, as NSAC has previously reported it largely failed those in the hunger and nutrition communities. Anti-hunger and nutrition advocates are deeply concerned about the House bill, which they predict will have a large, negative impact on vulnerable, at-risk youth populations.

The House bill would restrict the popular Community Eligibility Program (CEP) and freeze HHFKA’s sodium reduction efforts.

The House bill also includes a last minute addition that would create a three-year block grant pilot project for school feeding programs in three states, a move that has drawn condemnation from stakeholder groups including the School Nutrition Association (SNA). SNA had previously worked with Republican Committee members to give schools increased flexibility in complying with HHFKA’s school food nutrition standards, but now finds itself firmly in opposition to the House Committee bill as a result of the inclusion of the block grant and community eligibility provisions.

Of the 31 proposed amendments to the bill, six amendments were approved during the markup, including several that addressed concerns from the nutrition community. One such provision was an exemption from the whole grain-rich nutrition standard for “cultural foods,” which advocates claimed was a loophole that would be exploited as a workaround of nutrition standards. During the markup the committee approved an amendment offered by ranking member Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) that eliminated the cultural food exemption. The House Bill also originally included provisions that would require USDA to review all school meal regulations every three years in consultation with school groups, but not health experts. In the end the committee agreed to an amendment offered by Rep Jared Polis (D-CO) that added parents, pediatricians and dietitians to the list of stakeholders involved in the review.

What’s Next?

Now that both the Senate and House Committees have finally passed their respective bills, lawmakers have very limited remaining time to pass a joint CNR. The Senate has yet to bring their bill, which passed unanimously out of committee in January, to the Senate floor for a full vote; there is also no solution as yet to the bill’s budgetary issues, though progress is reportedly being made on that front. Although the House has marked up and passed their bill out of committee a CNR bill, given strong opposition from nearly every quarter and no commitment from leadership to bring the bill to the House floor, their path forward is anything but clear.

After floor passage, if that ever happens, both the House and Senate would need to reconcile the differences in their bills, and then send the compromised joint bill back to each chamber before a final vote. Only after this can Congress send the bill to President Obama for his signature. As the number of working days before election season continues to count down, time is of the essence.

Given the present situation, we are pessimistic that a new CNR will be completed this year, though like other advocates we will continue to work for resolution.

We will continue to provide updates on the progress of CNR in both the House and the Senate as the bills progress.

Categories: Local & Regional Food Systems, Nutrition & Food Access

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