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House Democrats add child nutrition to legislative menu

Proposal would ease eligibility thresholds for free meals at certain schools and for WIC benefits

Rep. Robert C. Scott will chair a committee business meeting on July 27 to vote on a Democratic plan to reauthorize federal child nutrition programs.
Rep. Robert C. Scott will chair a committee business meeting on July 27 to vote on a Democratic plan to reauthorize federal child nutrition programs. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House Education and Labor Committee is making a late-session push to renew child nutrition programs and incorporate changes made to cope with the pandemic, but disagreements could slow the reauthorization of a nutrition law that expired in 2015.

Appropriators continue to provide mandatory and discretionary funding since the expiration of the previous authorization, enacted in 2010.

The committee has scheduled a markup for Wednesday at which Democrats and Republicans are expected to air differences about how large a role the federal government should play in setting policies and operating the national school lunch and breakfast program; the Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, supplemental nutrition program; and other child nutrition programs.

Education and Labor Chairman Robert C. Scott, D-Va., and Civil Rights and Human Services Subcommittee Chair Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., said the draft bill to be taken up at the markup addresses a basic responsibility to keep children from going hungry.

One potential flashpoint between the parties is a provision that would change the criteria for a school or school district to qualify for community eligibility status that allows free school meals for all enrolled students. Currently, 40 percent of students in a school or school district must be poor enough to qualify for free lunches and breakfasts. The draft bill would set the threshold at 25 percent to qualify for community eligibility.

The House Republican majority in 2016 moved a child nutrition bill through the committee, then known as the Education and the Workforce Committee, that would have raised the threshold for community eligibility to 60 percent of students qualifying for free meals.

The Senate Agriculture Committee also reported out a bipartisan child nutrition reauthorization bill that year that would have made modest changes to policies such as school meal nutrition standards. Neither bill got a floor vote.

Democrats say the expanded school eligibility is needed to feed more children in communities with high poverty rates. Republicans may see the proposed change as a backdoor effort to return to universal free meals that many schools provided under pandemic waivers.

North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, the full committee’s ranking member, hinted at Republican opposition to the expanded eligibility in June when she applauded Senate Republicans for forcing removal from a bill language that would have continued free meals for children who qualified by income for reduced-price school meals. The bill continued flexibility for summer feeding programs for children this summer and increased per-meal reimbursement rates to school food providers to address inflation for the 2022-23 school year.

Foxx said removing the provision represented a return to pre-pandemic normalcy.

The draft legislation this year also would increase reimbursements for meals served in the schools. If approved, the changes would take effect after July 1, 2023.

Medicaid, WIC eligibility

Lawmakers may also spar over a provision in the draft that would make it easier for children to qualify for free or reduced-price meals if they are enrolled in Medicaid health care or who would be eligible because they receive adoption assistance, Social Security income or guardianship aid. The Medicaid eligibility program is currently a pilot program.

The draft bill also would make changes to the WIC program by expanding eligibility to children until their sixth birthday or the day they start attending full-day kindergarten, whichever occurs first. The cutoff age now is a child’s fifth birthday or the date they begin full-day kindergarten. Anti-hunger advocates and lawmakers have sought the change for several years.

Applicants for WIC or people recertifying their eligibility for the program could also do so by phone or video appointment under the draft legislation. State agencies would be able to issue benefits electronically. The proposal would make permanent the use of alternatives to in-person certifications that were adopted during the height of the pandemic.

The legislation would authorize $90 million per fiscal year to upgrade technology and communications equipment at WIC clinics.

Brian Dittmeier, public policy senior director at the National WIC Association, said the Agriculture Department’s flexibility in this area made the program more client-friendly and workable.

“Remote certification and appointment options have upended a nearly decade-long trend of declining child participation, demonstrating that more flexible services can enhance WIC’s reach and amplify WIC’s public health impact,” Dittmeier said in a statement.

The House markup comes just before the August recess, which means any House floor action would occur in the fall, a time of dwindling legislative days in both chambers. The big question still to be answered is whether Congress can find time to finalize reauthorization.

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member John Boozman, R-Ark., have been in talks for a child nutrition reauthorization bill but have not released legislation.