This is an excerpt reprinted with permission from The Hagstrom Report, a news service providing original national and international agricultural news to its subscribers.
The Senate Agriculture Committee has scheduled a business meeting next Wednesday to mark up a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the child nutrition programs. The markup already has support from the White House, sources familiar with the legislation have told The Hagstrom Report.
The markup, which was announced today jointly by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., will take place at 10 a.m. in Room 328A of the Russell Senate Office Building.
The bill will make amendments to the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act and the Child Nutrition Act of 1996. The programs covered include school meals, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children known as WIC, and smaller feeding and commodity distribution programs. It does not cover the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP or food stamps, which was reauthorized under the 2014 farm bill.
The bipartisan agreement is a remarkable achievement, given the divisions over the changes to school meals that resulted from the 2010 reauthorization bill that is known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Last fall, Roberts had to cancel a markup because he and Stabenow had not reached agreement.
The bill is a bipartisan compromise that reflects the priorities of the chair and ranking member, bills introduced by other members of the Senate Agriculture Committee and key stakeholders, knowledgeable sources told The Hagstrom Report.
“This is a Senate package,” one of the sources added. While there have been conversations between the staffs of the Senate Agriculture Committee and the House Education and the Workforce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the legislation in that chamber, the House committee has not endorsed the package, the source said.
On school meals, there will be “a certain level of flexibility” and “nutritional advancements” that has resulted in “a compromise that is not going to get vetoed,” the source added.
First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign against childhood obesity has championed the healthier school meal rules, but President Barack Obama limited his list of priorities in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night and did not mention child nutrition reauthorization.
The Agriculture Department, the source said, has provided technical advice throughout the development of the bill.
The committee has undertaken a thorough review of the programs under both the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, and the comprehensive reauthorization bill will have four major themes to reform and improve the programs, the sources said:
Program integrity and ensured access:
There have been concerns about levels of error and accuracy in the administration of the programs, and the bill will both “reduce barriers to participation” and reduce errors.
Flexibility in both school meals and summer meals:
The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service directors and the companies that make school foods, has asked for flexibility in implementing the healthier school meal rules, while nutritionists and some industry sectors have expressed concerns that flexibility would mean lowering standards. The bill will provide some flexibility but “addresses the points in a manner that preserves the advancements in nutrition made in the last couple years,” one of the sources said.
Both anti-hunger advocates and public officials have become concerned that children who depend on school meals during the school year are not getting enough food in summer, and the bill will also strengthen the summer meals program by making it easier for sponsors of summer meal programs to participate. The bill still calls for the use of congregate sites to which children are brought, but paperwork will be reduced, and other ways of providing food to children in the summer – including the use of electronic benefit transfer cards – will be covered.
Efficiency and delivery:
Previous rules have caused problems for both providers and industry, and the bill will attempt to deal with those complaints. Infant formula providers under the WIC program have complained that they are losing money, and the bill will provide “a little bit of balance in updating of practices that allow industry to participate in the program,” but will not alter eligibility for WIC or other programs, a source said.
Modernization: The committee searched for outdated, duplicative rules that could be eliminated, and paper-based record keeping will be replaced with technology, and data matching using “easily understandable formats” will be included, the sources said.
The bill will provide more school equipment and expand the Farm to School program.
It is unclear whether the Congressional Budget Office has completed a scoring of the bill. Earlier, there were reports that committee staff proposals were too expensive to stay within the budget that Roberts and Stabenow want to follow, and the sources confirmed those reports were accurate.
The bill will continue to be “tweaked,” and the scoring work will not be complete until the bill is passed, the sources said.
Both Republican and Democratic Senate Agriculture Committee aides have briefed various stakeholder groups on the details, but the sources declined to discuss any details about changes to school meals rules on issues such as salt, whole grains and the requirement that school meals include fruits and vegetables.
By law, federal nutrition programs are supposed to follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, but the Agriculture Department has said no changes to school meals will be needed following the release of the latest set of guidelines. No changes are needed, a source said, because the 2012 school meal rules anticipated the guidelines of 2015.
The Hagstrom Report covers Congressional hearings, markups and press conferences in Washington D.C., as well as national nutrition news and farm meetings throughout the United States. Subscribers to The Hagstrom Report receive a digital newsletter daily while Congress is in session and at other times as events require and news happens.