Well, it was a beautiful relationship while it lasted…
Ever since the School Nutrition Association (SNA) stunned child health advocates with its flip-flop on school nutrition (supporting strong standards in 2010, then urging their roll-back two years later), the organization of 55,000 school food professionals has thrown itself into the arms of House Republicans in hopes of pushing through its new agenda.
Meanwhile, motivated by their own distaste for “nanny state” programs such as the National School Lunch Program, as well as a cynical desire to undermine an effort long championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, House Republicans eagerly embraced the SNA’s goals.
It wasn’t long before the two groups’ talking points mirrored each other perfectly, with each espousing a pressing need for “flexibility” in school food programs, a goal which sounds innocuous but really means throwing science-based nutrition standards out the window, despite growing evidence of their success in improving the diets of 31 million school kids each day. And as a result of this happy alliance, school food – historically a bipartisan issue – suddenly became a politically charged topic, even spilling over into this year’s presidential campaign.
But now it looks like there’s trouble in paradise.
Just one day before the scheduled markup of the House Education and the Workforce Committee‘s “Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016” (an Orwellian name if there ever was one, given how the bill would gut child nutrition), Congressman Todd Rokita (IN-R), chair of the subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, introduced a substitute amendment which, among other things, proposes a three-state block grant pilot for school breakfasts and lunches.
Block grants are a favorite tool of conservatives to shrink the role of the federal government and reduce the size of social programs, but as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities well articulated in a statement hastily released yesterday, block grants in the particular context of school food are very likely to put children’s health and wellbeing at risk:
States would have to guarantee only one “affordable” meal a day for students, could set more restrictive eligibility rules than those used today, and could alter and weaken the programs’ nutrition standards. If the fixed amount of federal money for the year ran out — as could occur if poverty rose in a state due to a recession, plant closings, or other developments — there would be no guarantee that poor children would continue receiving free school meals. Moreover, states could divert resources they now spend on school meals to other purposes, as long as state politicians concluded it would meet school-aged children’s nutritional needs.
Upon learning of this new block grant proposal, the SNA immediately turned on its former ally and sounded the alarm bells. In a press release entitled, “SNA Urges a No Vote on House CNR Substitute,” the organization decried the idea as both “reckless” and “dangerous.”
In other words, House Republicans’ distaste for federal interference in school food programs suited the SNA perfectly when it came to rolling back nutrition standards – but now that conservatism has gone too far for the SNA to stomach.
But the House committee isn’t taking the SNA’s criticism lying down. Politico Pro (paywall protected) quotes a committee spokesperson as saying:
“It’s remarkable they would oppose a bill that addressed many of their priorities simply because it includes a limited pilot program affecting just three states. This kind of short-sighted advocacy led the organization to support a massive expansion of the federal role in school nutrition that has made it harder and more costly for their members to serve students healthy meals. There is only one bill in Congress that provides the flexibility and additional support school nutrition professionals have requested, and it’s the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act.”
Stay tuned for further details. And many thanks to Politico‘s Helena Bottemiller Evich for access to the Politico Pro stories that informed this post.
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