The long-awaited draft of the House’s child nutrition reauthorization (CNR) bill came out in April, and I was deeply saddened by one of the provisions to eliminate free meals for low-income children. No piece of legislation is perfect, and the last time child nutrition was reauthorized (the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act), there were certainly troublesome areas. But the best part, in my opinion, was the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Schools that qualified for CEP could serve all students, regardless of their payment status, free breakfast and lunch. In order to qualify, 40 percent of a school’s students had to qualify for free or reduced priced meals.
CEP was met with jubilation from child nutrition professionals, who no longer had to go through the long and cumbersome task of collecting, processing and submitting applications for free meals. “With a district our size we were processing tens of thousands of pieces of paper,” Joe Brown, director of foodservices for the Columbus City Schools, told me last year about his district’s application process before CEP. “[After CEP], instead of having to focus on applications and collecting money, we could focus on things like customer service, meal quality, which were always important but sometimes got pushed back because of the urgency around applications.”
Reducing applications was only one of the benefits of CEP: nationwide, participation increased in both breakfast and lunch. In the 2015-2016 school year, 8.5 million children were in schools that offered a CEP program. While it’s a large number, it’s still only slightly more than half of the students who are in schools that qualify for the federal program, according to the Food Research & Action Center. While many child nutrition professionals love CEP, many district’s administrators are hesitant to enact it: under the program, paperwork for free or reduced meals is no longer filed, and districts use that paperwork to qualify for other funding sources.
Which brings me back to the House draft of CNR. The House is attempting to raise the qualifying percentage for CEP from 40 to 60 percent. The move would eliminate 3 million children from the program—that’s 3 million low-income kids who could potentially no longer get free meals at school.
Childhood hunger in this country is real, and it’s often overlooked as something that happens in other, less fortunate countries. In 2014, 15.3 million children lived in food-insecure households, according to USDA data. That means those kids are in situations where they are unable to consistently access enough food. Schools are one of the frontline battlegrounds against childhood hunger, and CEP was their best weapon (some advocates are calling for free meals for every student in school).
The Republican majority in the House has gone to great lengths to foil initiatives put forth by President Obama, and many have taken issue with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), which first lady Michelle Obama has championed. Kevin Concannon, the USDA’s undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, told Politico: “It’s purely ideological.” That was Concannon’s remark about the House draft’s attempt to make changes to HHFKA (those changes include many things not related to CEP, such as halting sodium reductions).
The potential that members of Congress are playing politics with childhood hunger issues in this country is disgusting. These are kids who don’t have enough to eat. Do not punish these children because you take issue with another group’s political beliefs. It’s a shame that some are willing to put millions of children at risk because they want to make a political point. Rolling back CEP hurts everyone in this country.