- The House Committee on Education and Labor advanced the much-anticipated child nutrition reauthorization bill — the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act — by a 27-20 vote along partisan lines with no support from Republican lawmakers.
- During markup of the bill on Wednesday, Republicans said the legislation was rushed and could worsen inflation. Federal child nutrition programs were last reauthorized in 2010, and Democrats said children and families need help more than ever amid rising meal costs and higher rates of food insecurity.
- A Republican-proposed measure clarifying that meal substitutions can be made on religious grounds in schools was the only approved amendment during the markup process of the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act.
Child nutrition advocates are celebrating committee passage of the overdue legislation, as it would expand access to free meals for students, address meal debt shaming in schools and help with ending child hunger during the summer months.
The bill takes a big step in the direction of securing free universal school meals and would be a “game changer” for students and their families, said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center.
By expanding the number of schools that qualify for the community eligibility provision, more high-need school districts would be able to serve free meals to all students. On top of that, students on Medicaid would automatically qualify for free school meals under this bill.
The legislation would also create a pilot program supporting school meal programs that serve plant-based meals by providing education and technical assistance. Additionally, the bill would authorize $35 million annually in school equipment grants and $20 million annually for a new scratch cooking grant program.
“The provisions in this bill will just allow the programs to really meet the needs of the kids that they’re trying to serve,” FitzSimons said. “It’ll reduce the number of kids who fall through the cracks who are eligible for free meals.”
The advancement of the child nutrition reauthorization bill comes just a month after passage of the Keep Kids Fed Act, which continued some pandemic-era waivers. That law, however, did not continue past this summer the universal free meals that schools and families became accustomed to over the past two years. And the bill approved in House Committee Wednesday would not do so either.
Nonetheless, ranking committee member Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-North Carolina, said during the markup that the bill would create “loaded and extraneous programs at the expense of taxpayers.”
“Pushing plant-based pilot programs, adding new grants for scratch cooking and expanding multiple other programs are ridiculous when schools are facing inflation and supply chain crises,” Foxx said.
A new report released by the School Nutrition Association, School Nutrition Foundation and Share Our Strength’s No Hungry Kid campaign confirms that supply chain issues continue to pose challenges for school meal programs facing rising costs and product shortages.
If passed, the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act would align with the latest nutrition standards established in the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which cover 2020-2025.
Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations at SNA, this week told K-12 Dive she is concerned about additional nutrition standards expected of schools this fall as they navigate another year with supply chain issues.
“We need to make sure that any standards that are proposed are realistic for schools to be able to make moving forward,” she said.
Overall, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, said during the markup that the pandemic-era waivers and congressional response to COVID-19 prove investments in child nutrition programs reduce child hunger.
“Still, we have more work ahead to achieve our ultimate goal — eliminating child hunger in America,” Scott said. “To do so, we must ensure that federal child nutrition programs have the resources they need to feed children. The Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act takes long overdue steps to deliver on that goal by modernizing proven child nutrition programs and providing more children and families with access to nutrition assistance.”
The bill will now head to the House floor where a date for consideration has not yet been set.