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School Meals Block Grant Proposal Gambles With Children’s Basic Nutrition

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:

  • As noted, block grants don’t respond to increased need during economic downturns.  As poverty rose during the Great Recession, many more children qualified for free or reduced-price school meals.  The number of low-income children who consumed a free or reduced-price meal on a typical day rose by more than 2 million between the 2008-2009 and the 2012-2013 school years.  Under a capped block grant, states wouldn’t have more funds available to meet growing demand when poverty and unemployment rose.
  • Block grants don’t keep up with rising costs.  Under the federal school meals programs, the per-meal reimbursement rates that schools receive to help cover their costs in providing school meals are adjusted each year to keep pace with food-price inflation.  For example, reimbursements rose by 4.3 percent between the 2007-2008 and the 2008-2009 school years.  Under the proposed block grant, by contrast, states would not receive more funds when food prices rose, since the block-grant amount that a state would receive would remain unchanged from year to year.  School districts would face similar shortfalls if they wanted to increase participation among eligible poor children or expand meal service to include breakfasts.
  • Block grants allow states to divert federal funds from the intended program goals.  More than 90 percent of federal spending on the school meal programs is devoted to providing meals to low-income children.  The rest covers state and federal program administration and modest subsidies for meals served to children whose family income isn’t low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals.  Under the proposed block grant, states would be free to divert funds away from feeding low-income children to other purposes.

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.