Senior Policy Analyst
We’ve cautioned that Rep. Todd Rokita’s bill to reauthorize the child nutrition programs would reduce access to school meals for poor children attending some schools in low-income communities, and make it harder for state WIC programs to achieve savings through competitive bidding. The latest version of the bill, which the House Education and the Workforce Committee will vote on tomorrow, takes another turn in the wrong direction by including a school meals block grant.
Under the block grant, up to three states could opt for a capped funding stream in lieu of the federal entitlement for reimbursement for meals served in the school breakfast and lunch programs. States would have to guarantee only one “affordable” meal a day for students, could set more restrictive eligibility rules than those used today, and could alter and weaken the programs’ nutrition standards. If the fixed amount of federal money for the year ran out — as could occur if poverty rose in a state due to a recession, plant closings, or other developments — there would be no guarantee that poor children would continue receiving free school meals. Moreover, states could divert resources they now spend on school meals to other purposes, as long as state politicians concluded it would meet school-aged children’s nutritional needs.
Block-granting the school meals programs is a high-risk proposal. It assumes that states can do better, even with less funding when poverty rises, in meeting vulnerable children’s basic nutritional needs than the proven federal programs. The federal school meal programs provide nutritious meals to low-income children throughout the school year. During fiscal year 2015, some 30 million children ate a school lunch on a typical day, and 14 million children ate a school breakfast. In the average state, nearly 600,000 children eat school meals each school day.
The risks a block grant poses include the following:
The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant shows vividly how block grants can allow states to shift spending away from a program’s core purpose. Since the start of the TANF block grant — the purpose of which is to prepare recipients for work and provide assistance for those who cannot work — states have redirected much of their state and federal TANF funds to other purposes for which they were never intended. States have used their block grant funds to fill budget holes and have, in some cases, withdrawn funding they previously spent on TANF’s core purposes. This trend worsened when need rose during the Great Recession. States now spend only slightly more than one-quarter of their combined federal and state TANF funds on basic assistance to meet the essential needs of families with children, and just another quarter on child care for low-income families and activities to connect TANF families to work. They spend the rest on other services, including programs not aimed at improving poor families’ work opportunities or helping families meet basic needs.
The proposed block grant would operate in only three states but that’s almost certainly intended to be a foot in the door. In 1995, House Republicans passed legislation that would have ended the federal school meals programs and replaced them with a block grant across the country. For some policymakers, that remains the ultimate goal.
Moreover, the school meals programs are a proven investment in the nation’s schoolchildren. There’s no reason to start to unravel these successful programs and let states gamble with low-income children’s basic nutritional needs by converting the programs into a block grant.