House Democrats add child nutrition to legislative menu

Democrats say expanded school eligibility is needed to feed more children in communities with high poverty rates.

Appropriators continue to provide mandatory and discretionary funding since the expiration of the previous authorization, enacted in 2010.

The committee has scheduled a markup for Wednesday at which Democrats and Republicans are expected to air differences about how large a role the federal government should play in setting policies and operating the national school lunch and breakfast program; the Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, supplemental nutrition program; and other child nutrition programs.

Education and Labor Chairman Robert C. Scott, D-Va., and Civil Rights and Human Services Subcommittee Chair Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., said the draft bill to be taken up at the markup addresses a basic responsibility to keep children from going hungry.

One potential flashpoint between the parties is a provision that would change the criteria for a school or school district to qualify for community eligibility status that allows free school meals for all enrolled students. Currently, 40 percent of students in a school or school district must be poor enough to qualify for free lunches and breakfasts. The draft bill would set the threshold at 25 percent to qualify for community eligibility.

The House Republican majority in 2016 moved a child nutrition bill through the committee, then known as the Education and the Workforce Committee, that would have raised the threshold for community eligibility to 60 percent of students qualifying for free meals.

The Senate Agriculture Committee also reported out a bipartisan child nutrition reauthorization bill that year that would have made modest changes to policies such as school meal nutrition standards. Neither bill got a floor vote.

Democrats say the expanded school eligibility is needed to feed more children in communities with high poverty rates. Republicans may see the proposed change as a backdoor effort to return to universal free meals that many schools provided under pandemic waivers.