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Letter to the House Education and the Workforce Committee on Child Nutrition Reauthorization

May 17, 2016

Dear Representative:

On behalf of the three million members of the National Education Association (NEA) and the students they serve, we urge you to OPPOSE H.R. 5003 - the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016 - scheduled for House Education and Workforce Committee markup Thursday May 18. This bill, which reauthorizes the child nutrition programs including school meals, could potentially cause more children to experience hunger, creates additional administrative hurdles for schools and districts, and contains a dangerous block grant proposal which threatens access to necessary meals for all students in those states. Votes associated with this issue may be included in the NEA Legislative Report Card for the 114th Congress.

Our nation’s child nutrition programs play a critical role in fighting hunger, promoting health and wellness, and preparing students to learn. Maintaining the healthy nutrition guidelines set by HFFK, and ensuring access to school meals, especially for low-income children, are top priorities for NEA. The NEA members who are school food service professionals prepare school meals, maintain a safe and healthy learning environment, and help students learn about and practice healthy nutrition and eating habits.

Historically, the federal government’s role in child nutrition has been to ensure students are receiving the meals they need so they are well-nourished and ready to learn. We strongly oppose the inclusion of the competitive block grant proposal because it would erode the federal role in child nutrition by creating a pilot program for a handful of states to administer school meal programs that would threaten students’ access, contains little oversight, and has no accountability for school meal nutrition standards.

The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act has had widespread, positive impacts on children’s access to healthy foods during the school day. In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that 97 percent of schools are successfully meeting the updated nutrition standards. Improved access for children to crucial school meals through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) has allowed more than 18,000 schools in high-poverty areas nationwide to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students without collecting and processing individual school meal applications.

The goal of the school meals programs should be to get eligible students into the program as early and easily as possible. To date, CEP has been a valuable tool in efficient access for eligible students. This is why we are deeply concerned about the potential impact of the bill’s proposal to cut the program by changing the current threshold from 40% to 60% of students identified as eligible—pushing more than 7,000 schools and 3.4 million students off of CEP. These schools would have to return to burdensome eligibility verification requirements and many of these students who had been receiving meals without stigma or co-pay, may no longer be able to participate in the school meals programs. This could result in students experiencing hunger and undernutrition, preventing them from being ready to learn in the classroom each day.

The access and administrative issues experienced by schools that no longer qualify for CEP will only be compounded by the bill’s verification proposal, which impacts all schools participating in school meals programs. The bill contains a significant change in verification requirements for school meals programs, moving the verification percentage from the current three percent to as much as 10 percent. Such a drastic increase will create an enormous administrative burden on schools particularly in the early years of implementation while schools are simultaneously working to implement the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act at the local level.

Additionally, not all school districts employ full-time food service directors leaving increased verification processing to those with an already full workload which will take time directly away from their capacity to work with students. To that end, we are pleased with the inclusion of the administrative burden reduction clause in the bill. The clause would allow local education agencies to receive a verification waiver under circumstances where the local education agency would face an administrative burden and cost associated with verification requirements compliance. Ultimately, we want to ensure that all eligible students have access to school meal programs and do not want to see anyone erroneously removed from the school meals program.  While we do appreciate attempts to mitigate the impact of the increased percentage, including credits for good performance and a delay in full implementation of the increase, we remain concerned that such a change will have negative consequences for schools and students.

The bill does support healthy school foods by establishing loan assistance and grant programs to help school districts upgrade their food service equipment and facilities, and encourages schools and districts to provide required training for school food service employees during paid, regular working hours. We urge the Committee to strengthen this language to ensure training be conducted during paid working hours so that all employees, who often make less than a living wage and must work multiple jobs to help support their families, can participate.

We are also pleased to see a small increase in the reimbursement rate for the school breakfast program, which can help schools more effectively provide students with a healthy start to their day.

We remain further concerned that the bill takes a step back from the nutrition standards for school meals that have been implemented successfully in many schools across the country. The bill does maintain some of these standards, but contains troubling provisions around the sodium standards, limits whole grain requirements, and undercuts nutrition standards in snack and meal items served à la carte.

We urge you to oppose any efforts that would expand the block grant pilot program. We also urge you to oppose any amendments that would further weaken: access to school meals and other child nutrition programs, the nutrition standards, and/or training for school food service workers. We ask that you support any efforts to restore and strengthen these provisions, particularly those that strengthen training provisions for school food service workers by ensuring that required training occurs during paid working hours, and offered in-person and hands-on where appropriate.

Again, we urge you to oppose H.R. 5003 and instead work to strengthen and build upon the demonstrated successes of the Health Hunger Free Kids Act. Educators know first-hand that hungry children struggle to learn and that access to an adequate and healthy diet is essential to academic success. Now is the time to ensure these child nutrition programs are improved and protected so that we can continue to see the positive affects nutritious meals have in our students’ lives.  We look forward to working with the Committee and the rest of the House as this bill moves through the committee process and towards floor consideration.

Sincerely,

Mary Kusler
Director, Government Relations