Politics & Government

School lunch bill ‘fundamentally harms’ low-income children, critics say

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools cafeteria employees Judy Jefferson (left) and Trina Steele dish out green beans and chicken nuggets for children during lunch at Barringer Academic Center on Tuesday, June 17, 2014.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools cafeteria employees Judy Jefferson (left) and Trina Steele dish out green beans and chicken nuggets for children during lunch at Barringer Academic Center on Tuesday, June 17, 2014. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., and North Carolina’s top child nutrition official said Wednesday that a House of Representatives bill offering school nutrition block grants could harm low-income children by limiting their access to healthy food at school.

They were joined by several other child advocates and members of Congress to oppose the legislation, which also would make changes to other child nutrition programs.

The bill, which was introduced at the end of April by Rep. Todd Rokita, an Indiana Republican, passed the education committee along party lines but has yet to pass the Republican-controlled House.

Main Avenue Elementary School students hand out fresh fruits and vegetables to classmates during the all-kids farmers market courtesy of the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services.

Opponents protested that the bill – titled the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016 – would hinder the ability of schools to provide healthy meals for low-income children. The proposed block grant would provide states with a fixed amount of federal funding, allowing for no flexibility in the case of changing enrollments, they said.

$24 million The potential loss in school nutrition funding to North Carolina if the block-grant pilot bill becomes law, according to the School Nutrition Association

“While we want our children to learn, oftentimes they go to school to get a meal,” said Adams. The bill “fundamentally harms the program’s ability to respond to changes and reduce children’s needs.”

And hungry students, Adams said, are more likely to have behavioral problems, health-related problems, a lack of motivation and the inability to concentrate.

Representative won Democratic primary for 12th Congressional District. Supporters gathered to hear her at Unknown Brewing in Charlotte.

“It’s not doing our kids the very best that it can do for them,” she said.

Rokita’s official Twitter account retweeted a tweet directed at him from the Education and Workforce Committee that was in defense of the bill.

“HR5003 improves child nutrition programs for kids, families, & taxpayers,” it says.

In a statement, Rokita said the goal was to spur innovation among local education leaders and that the program would increase breakfast reimbursements for schools.

“This demonstration project stems from the belief that local leaders, not federal bureaucrats, know what their students need to succeed and who needs to be served most,” he said.

The proposed block grant pilot could mean a loss of $24 million for North Carolina, according to the School Nutrition Association, which also opposes the bill.

Many critics worry this is the first step before implementing a national school meal block grant, which they say would hurt schools’ ability to adjust to possible increases in students who need free or reduced-price meals.

Child hunger is real. Often children leave school at the end of the day not knowing when they’ll eat after school.

Lynn Harvey, chief of North Carolina’s child nutrition services

“Child hunger is a serious problem in North Carolina, and across the country,” Lynn Harvey, chief of North Carolina’s child nutrition services, said during the conference. “It’s not just about a meal skipped here or there. Child hunger is real. Often children leave school at the end of the day not knowing when they’ll eat after school.”

In North Carolina alone, nearly 60 percent of students qualify for some type of reduced meal, she said, and more than 27 percent of students are at risk for chronic, debilitating hunger.

“There are simply not enough funds in the state’s coffer to cover their needs,” she said.

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