US Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Indiana) had his bill approved by a divided House panel last week, with the goal of easing nutritional standards in the current federal school lunch program and making it more difficult for schools to gain federal assistance for free meals.
Rokita insists that the bill would allow schools to have greater adaptability in addressing nutritional standards and focusing on helping students who have the most need.
"This is hardly unreasonable, and it's hardly unfair," he said, after complaining that critics had turned the bill into a "partisan food fight."
But Democrats are saying the change will result in fewer students receiving healthy meals.
"This bill is more representative of child nutrition policy out of âThe Hunger Games,'" said Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
Scott even suggested that the bill's name be changed to "The Hunger Games." The committee blocked an amendment that would have changed the "community eligibility" program that came into being when the US Congress made the last revision to the school lunch program in 2010.
Schools have been allowed to provide free meals to every student for the past two years if a minimum of 40% were also receiving certain other government assistance packages. In Rokita's bill, the requirement number would be raised to 60%.
If the bill passes, 120 Indiana schools, which serve almost 58,000 pupils, would lose their schoolwide free meal program, Another 231 schools would lose the opportunity to use the program in coming years, reports Maureen Groppe of the USA Today Network.
This week, the National Governors Association and the School Nutrition Association announced they were staunchly opposed to the measure. Making a way for schoolwide free meals takes away the administrative hardship of validating incomes for individual students and makes it more likely that children who qualify for free meals get fed.
But Republicans say the bill allows for better allocation of resources that are limited. The approximately $300 million annual savings could be redistributed to other nutrition programs for children.
A 20-14 Education and Workforce Committee vote got the proposal rolling. The plan would set up a trial period of "block grants" for school meals in three states, which means that kids in these areas would not receive unlimited federal dollars for free and reduced-price meals. These states would also be exempt from having to follow most governmental standards of nutrition, according to Mary Clare Jalonick of the Associated Press.
First Lady Michelle Obama's healthier school nourishment rules would be altered as well. Some schools have said her plan was too restrictive and that the meals were disliked by students. Ms. Obama's campaign set fat, sugar, and sodium limits on foods served in school cafeterias and beyond. Her program also required additional whole grains, vegetables, and fruit.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was aimed at increasing nutritional standards for school meals and developed the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) program which enabled low-income students to receive free breakfasts and lunches and eliminated the sometimes difficult to decipher application process for students who were eligible to receive meals at no charge.
Lacie Pierson, writing for West Virginia's Herald-Dispatch, reports that in Cabell County, 75.16% of students in the 26 public schools in the area are eligible for free meals according to ICNEA-2016.
In West Virginia, school districts can use data from the Department of Health and Human Resources programs including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to find students who qualify for free and reduced lunches. Parents do not have to complete any additional documentation for their children to qualify for free meals.
The School Nutrition Association called the plan "reckless" and said that it will result in keeping children from having federally guaranteed access to the nutrition they must have at school, reports Mary Clare Jalonick of Associated Press.
But House Republicans said that taxpayer money could be better used by reducing free meals for some young people who go to low-income schools, but who are not eligible for free or reduced meals.