Tell Republicans In Congress: Don’t Cut Free Lunches For Poor Children

Jeff Bryant

Conservative lawmakers are well known for wanting to cut funding to public education. But just remember, every time they take a swing at public school budgets, they hit poor kids.

The newest blow aimed at public schools will hit low-income students in the stomach – literally.

A bill introduced by a Republican in Congress called The Improving Child Nutrition And Education Act does the exact opposite of what it claims to do.

In this case, “improving” children’s nutrition means cutting the availability of federally subsidized lunches to hungry children in public schools.

Specifically, the bill would tighten eligibility restrictions that govern how many schools can take full advantage of the free and reduced price lunch program, potentially cutting off food to thousands of schools and millions of students.

The bill is still in committee, but it’s not too early to tell Congress this is bad public policy that needs to go away.

Why This Hurts Poor Children

The bill comes at the worst possible time.

Public schools across the nation are still reeling from years of budget cuts as most states continue to fund schools less than what they did in 2008, and overall per-pupil spending in public schools has dropped four years in a row. While these budget cuts have rolled out, school enrollments have increased, and many more of the students entering the system live in poverty.

Low-income students are now the majority in public schools nationwide, with nearly one in five schools classified as a “high poverty” school.

Food insecurity among Americans has been on the rise for years, with recent studies finding hunger levels among children and youth at historic highs, affecting more than one in five – a staggering 15.3 million – children.

The negative effects of hunger and poor nutrition on children are well known. Children who don’t get enough to eat or who are relegated to poor quality food are generally less healthy, less psychologically and emotionally secure, and more prone to experience developmental challenges than their more food secure peers.

Children who are hungry or fed low-quality food also do less well in school, often exhibiting an inability to concentrate, lack of energy, tiredness, symptoms of illness and problematic behavior.

Faced with a full understanding of the need to address food insecurity among poor children, especially in the context of their ability to learn in school, Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010.

As Cory Herro of Think Progress explains, that act specifically addressed low-income children’s food insecurity by improving nutritional standards for school lunches and increasing funding for free and reduced-price lunch programs in schools.

“The Act” Hero contends, “improved school nutrition for more than 31 million students nationwide, half of whom live in low-income households and qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. For many of these students, free lunches are their only reliable source of food during the week.”

The 2010 Act also addressed another obstacle to providing students with healthy meals during their school day. Previous to that legislation, students who were not immediately eligible to receive price breaks on school food had to produce documentation in the lunch line to prove their eligibility – basically, admitting to their fellow students they were of low- or moderate-income status.

“This created unnecessary stigma,” explains Elizabeth Barrow of the New America Foundation. “School administrators,” she writes, “expressed concern that poor students were simply choosing not to eat rather than be subjected to the stigma of proving that they were experiencing food insecurity.”

But the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act improved participation in school lunch programs. “Schools participating in the initial pilot program saw a 9.4 percent increase in school breakfast participation,” Barrow notes, “and a 5.2 percent increase in school lunch participation.”

What Republicans are pushing in Congress would undermine a good deal of this progress.

What’s In This Bad Bill

The cuts to free lunches for poor children in the bill are related to proposed changes to a technicality in the 2010 law.

As Jared Bernstein and Ben Spielberg of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explain on a Washington Post blog, current law includes a provision that helps overcome the difficulties schools had in delivering free or low-cost food to students and eliminates the humiliation students often felt in applying for it.

The Community Eligibility Provision in the current law ensures high-poverty schools get enough funding to offer free school meals to all students. Granting these schools universal eligibility, Bernstein and Spielberg explain, “simplifies the school meal process and helps ensure that kids have something to eat during the school day, all at very little cost.” It also eliminates the stigma associated with proving eligibility in the lunch line.

But what Republicans are proposing to do in this new bill is to raise the bar for schools that want to make free and low-priced midday meal service universal. Currently, schools can take advantage of community eligibility if 40 percent of their students qualify automatically. The bill would raise the bar to 60 percent.

That change alone would affect more than 7,000 schools and threaten free and reduced price lunches to nearly 3.4 million students.

Adding to the negatives are additional bureaucratic provisions that complicate the application process for parents. As Richard Kirsch points out for The Hill, what Republicans are proposing would make it more difficult for parents to understand their eligibility and more burdensome on parents to renew qualification and navigate the verification process.

On the plus side, the bill does propose a modest increase in funding for school breakfast programs for eligible students, and extends some additional funding to summer food programs for those same students. But on balance this doesn’t come close to making up for the damage done to the much more universal and beneficial lunch program.

Republicans also defend the proposed legislation as a way to improve efficiency and relieve regulatory burden. But it really does the exact opposite.

“Raising the threshold would save a little bit of money, as fewer students would qualify for free school meals,” Bernstein and Spielberg argue, “but the overall savings of about $1.6 billion over 10 years wouldn’t come close to offsetting the administrative burden, increased social stigma for low-income students, and negative health and academic effects.”

Who Thinks Up This Stuff?

The bill comes from Indiana House Rep. Todd Rokita, a Tea Party Republican with a history of cutting public spending, despite any negative consequences, and diverting money from public schools to alternatives.

Rokita was part of the “Hell No” caucus in 2011 that threatened to send the nation into default by scuttling an agreement on raising the deficit ceiling. As Think Progress reported at the time, Rokita declared he was willing to vote down a debt-ceiling raise “even if it means ‘the economy might get worse.'” He deemed anyone disagreeing with him as being “‘piggish’ and ‘un-American.'”

As the Think Progress writer noted, failing to raise the debt ceiling would have resulted in immediate and massive spending cuts that would have caused a massive economic downturn and risked the recovery from a recessionary economy.

Rokita also once said, when he was Indiana Secretary of State, that African Americans have a slave-like relationship to the Democratic Party.

And Rokita has never been particularly supportive of public schools.

As Doug Martin, author of the book “Hoosier School Heist,” explains at the Schools Matter blog, Rokita has received significant donations from proponents of charter schools, which are alternatives to public schools and compete for the same public funding.

For his devotion to charter schools, a prominent charter school-lobbying group awarded Rokita a “Champion of School Choice” award in 2015. Rokita also favors school vouchers that redirect taxpayer dollars from public schools to private schools.

Let’s Summarize

Of course, for conservative Republicans to propose cuts to federal school lunch programs is nothing new. GOP House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan includes cuts to school food and nutrition programs in his proposed budget.

Rather than cost-cutting, what’s needed is some increased spending. Students should have more access to federally subsidized breakfast and summertime meals without sacrificing midday meals. Research also shows more money needs to go toward improving the quality of food low-income kids get in schools.

Instead of solutions, Rokita and his colleagues are proposing a bill that:

● does the exact opposite of what it declares to do,
● burdens schools with more paperwork and costs,
● subjects vulnerable school children to humiliation and hunger,
● risks damaging low-income students’ physical and mental development and ability to learn in school, and
● hits schools at the worst possible time when they are increasingly saddled with budget cuts and exploding populations of needy students.

Tell them, no way.

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