House Republicans are proposing legislation to increase eligibility criteria for schools with free and reduced lunch programs. Rep. Todd Rotika (R-IN), chairman of the subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, introduced The Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016 on April 20. If enacted, the bill could leave millions of students who rely on the program as their only source of nutrition without a daily meal.
Black students in low-income areas are likely to suffer the biggest impact of the legislation.
The new bill specifically restricts community eligibility, introduced in 2010 as an option for schools in extremely impoverished areas to bypass the long application process, getting meals to needy students as quickly as possible at no cost to families.
Students in schools previously accepted through community eligibility will now have to reapply as individuals, reinstating the loads of paperwork schools sought to avoid.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the new changes would eliminate free meal programs for more than 3.4 million students in 7,022 schools nationwide. Furthermore, an estimated 11,600 eligible schools that are not enrolled in the program will no longer have the right to its benefits.
Lack of proper nutrition can have a devastating effects on school-aged children. Hungry children often have lower math scores and face an increased risk of repeating a grade level, according to the CBPP report. The same report notes that high-poverty neighborhoods, which can be violent, stressful, and environmentally hazardous, can impair children’s cognitive development, school performance, mental health, and long-term physical health — even if the family itself is not low-income.
Leaders in the agriculture and nutrition industries are already voicing opposition to the new policies.
Food Research & Action Center President Jim Weill said in a news release, “We will continue to urge the House Education and Workforce Committee and Congress to put our nation’s children first and legislate improvements to the child nutrition programs, not changes that will hurt children by reducing their access to nutritious meals, leaving them hungrier and less ready to learn.”
Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of United Fresh Produce Association, expressed disappointment at the proposal’s lack of bipartisan input.
“This bill fails to address many of the real issues needed to win bipartisan support on the House floor, and fails to recognize that compromise will be necessary with the Senate and the Obama Administration if the President is ever to sign a bill,” Stenzel said in a statement.
“We urge committee members to move forward to pass a bipartisan bill that ensures all students continue to have access to healthier school meals and snacks, including more fresh fruits and vegetables.”