Op Ed: A Dangerous Child Nutrition Reauthorization


By Marshall Matz, Counsel, School Nutrition Association


© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.


Washington, Sept. 15---The Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives has announced that Child Nutrition Reauthorization is on the short list for this Session of Congress. It is an important bill with many critical improvements. The legislation will, for one example, finally grant the Secretary of Agriculture the authority to regulate the sale of foods and beverages sold outside of the school cafeteria based on nutritional criteria. The courts ruled in 1983 that the Secretary of Agriculture did not have the authority to regulate outside of the cafeteria. This authority is one key element to fighting childhood obesity. 


In recent weeks, most of the attention on the child nutrition bill has focused on how to pay for it. The Senate bill would fund the child nutrition improvements by amending the food stamp program. Over 100 Democratic Members of the House have written to the Speaker in opposition to funding child nutrition by cutting the food stamp program (now called SNAP). These members are correct; child nutrition should not be funded with SNAP benefits. 


There is another provision, however, a sleeper provision, that could fundamentally alter the structure of the school lunch program as enacted in 1946 and signed into law by President Truman. While the federal government has provided free meals to children with family income below 130% of poverty, and a reduced price meal of 40 cents for students between 130% and 185% of poverty, local communities have decided how much to charge students with family income above that amount. That makes good sense as local board of education know their community and what parents can afford.


Under the pending legislation however, for the first time, the federal government would get involved in dictating how much local communities should charge “non-poor” children. This is a dangerous idea that could turn a nutrition program for all children into a means-tested income security program that prices many non-poor children out of the program. 


The school lunch program has operated effectively in all schools because the federal government provides a grant-in-aid to the school if they will participate in the program and follow the federal rules and nutrition guidelines. This element of the federal support…Section 4 funding…was not intended to be means tested. It is the carrot that entices the local schools into the program. It is the glue that holds the program together and bridges the multiple purposes of the federal program. If the Congress turns this broad based grant into a transfer payment to individual children it won’t be long before the support will erode and then evaporate. Many children will eventually be priced out of the program and some schools will eventually leave the federal program. 


This is a fundamental change in the structure of the program that is about to be enacted and without any pilot or test. Further, it will also undermine the agricultural purposes of the program by decreasing the size of the program. 


It is important to try and attract more non-federal money into the program. But local communities around the country have very different economic profiles.   It is one thing to follow the same science nationwide; it is another to assume that non-poor children in rural South Dakota can afford what the children in Connecticut can afford for a school lunch. 


Bottom line: in the long run, this provision could fundamentally alter a very successful program that serves over 30 million children a day. The risks are high and the reasons for the change do not justify the risk. Let’s test the idea. The Congress should pull back on this section of the bill. 


Mr. Matz was formerly Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry with responsibility for federal nutrition programs. He is a principal at Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz P.C.