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School Nutrition Bills Under the Microscope

Legislation currently under debate in Congress could force schools to reapply in order to participate in free meal programs. (USDA)
Legislation currently under debate in Congress could force schools to reapply in order to participate in free meal programs. (USDA)
July 14, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Two bills to renew childhood nutrition programs are being debated by Congress, and advocates say if they are approved, it could become harder for schools to offer free meals to students in need.

Under the microscope is the Community Eligibility Provision, which permits school systems to provide free meals for all students in schools with high levels of poverty. HB 5003, called the "Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016", would tighten the requirements for schools to qualify under this provision.

That means nationwide more than 7,000 schools serving 3.4 million students would have to reapply for the program, according to Jessie Hewins, senior child nutrition analyst with the Food Research and Action Center.

"In Arkansas, about 44 schools would no longer be eligible to participate in the program with the new threshold under the House bill,” Hewins said. “That's about 15,000 students."

Those in favor of changing the program said free meals should be given to those who need it most and that funding could be used in other areas such as summer food programs.

Zoe Neuberger, senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said there's a chance the bill in the House will be modified before it is approved.

"The administration doesn't support that change,” Neuberger said. “So our hope is that, as the legislation moves forward, the Community Eligibility provision would be dropped."

The Senate version of the legislation doesn't include changes to the Community Eligibility Provision.

Hewin says schools that offer free food to all students see an increase in the number of kids eating breakfast and lunch, regardless of their family's income.

"We know that schools that are able to offer free meals to all the kids, it really eliminates the stigma in the cafeteria,” Hewin said.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - AR