May 03, 2016

Hunger games in Congress

The following op-ed of mine appeared in today's Gazette-Mail. If you feel so inclined, please contact your representative and ask that they not mess with feeding kids in school.

We have a tendency in West Virginia to top the lists of bad things and bring up the rear of the lists of good things. One fortunate exception to that pattern is the area of child nutrition, in which we’ve made huge strides in recent years.

Some readers may remember the 2013 Feed to Achieve Act, which passed the Legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support. The bill was “to eventually provide free nutritious meals for all pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade school children in West Virginia.”

We’ve come a long way toward that goal since then. For the last two years, West Virginia has led the nation in school breakfast participation.

Rising to the top of that list was a huge turnaround. As MetroNews reported in February, a few years ago, only about 28 percent of students were fed school breakfasts. Now that number has increased to over 82 percent. This is a big deal since kids who are “hangry” — hungry and angry — can’t learn very well.

Part of the reason for that success was Feed to Achieve’s mandate that schools offer innovate ways of serving breakfast. But a federal policy enacted in 2010 also helped.

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows school boards to provide free meals for all students in schools with a high percentage of children in poverty. The idea is to improve nutrition, remove stigma for getting free or reduced lunches, reduce paperwork, and to improve education and reduce discipline problems.

CEP has so far been adopted by 46 of 55 counties. Of these, 19 provide free meals to all students in the county at this time, with at least one new county to step up next year. As of January 2016, 429 out of 686 schools were participating — a rate of around 62 percent that impacted nearly 146,000 students.

It’s a big deal.

The bad news is that proposed legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives could undo much of that progress. The bill in question is HB 5003, misnamed as the “Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016.” Its lead sponsor is Indiana Congressman Todd Rokita.

According to the national Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “If this bill becomes law, 7,022 schools now using community eligibility to simplify their meal programs and improve access for low-income students could have to reinstate applications and return to monitoring eligibility in the lunch line within two years. These schools serve nearly 3.4 million students. Another 11,647 schools that qualify for community eligibility but have not yet adopted it could lose eligibility.”

The bill would also increase and complicate school meal application verification requirements in ways likely to cause students to lose access to free or reduced meals.

Advocates for better child health and nutrition have also expressed concerns about the bill’s weakening of nutrition standards and its impact on participants in child care and summer feeding programs as well as the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program.

I’m hoping that our congressional delegation will stand up for West Virginia’s children and oppose these measures. We’ve come too far to turn back now.