Keep program that feeds learning

Republicans in the U.S. House are taking aim at a child-nutrition program that reduces both paperwork for schools and public humiliation for children.

Disappointingly, Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Bowling Green, was among the House Education Committee members voting last week in favor of legislation that would exclude 343 high-poverty schools in Kentucky from providing free meals to all their students, while granting a favor to baby-food makers that could put more profits on multinational corporation Nestle’s bottom line.

The reauthorization of child-nutrition programs that the panel approved 20-14 contains a provision that would discourage WIC programs — which serve women, infants and children — from using competitive bidding to select suppliers of infant foods. Before the states that administer WIC could seek bids for infant foods, they would be required to study the effects on retail prices and product availability for non-WIC consumers.

Competitive bidding is a well-established practice for lowering prices. Rather than pay for these studies, though, WIC programs would probably just skip the competitive bidding and pay higher prices for baby food, boosting income for Nestle-owned Gerber, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which reports that Gerber Foods has been lobbying for limits on competitive bidding.

Surely, such a brazen waste of public dollars won’t withstand scrutiny by the Senate or even the full House. What the bill does to a nutrition option for high-poverty schools is equally a false economy.

The community eligibility program, which was launched in Kentucky five years ago, is available to schools where 40 percent of students automatically qualify for free meals because they are in foster care, homeless or their families are eligible for food stamps.

Studies show that in schools meeting the 40 percent threshold, two-thirds or more of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals once parents send in income information. In schools that opt in, all students eat free, which spares youngsters the stigma of being identified as poor. Older students in particular often go hungry rather than tag themselves as “free lunch.”

The bill sponsored by Rep. Todd Rokita, a Republican from Indianapolis, would restrict the option to schools where 60 percent of students automatically qualify. In Kentucky, that would eliminate 343 schools feeding 191,000 students. An additional 171 Kentucky schools would be precluded from opting in in the future.

Rokita says the change would save about $100 million a year in the $21 billion child-nutrition program that could be plowed into school breakfasts or feeding children during the summer — good causes that this country can afford without cutting another program that’s helping kids.

Educators obviously value being able to feed all the students in a high-poverty school. Participating schools must absorb the costs of students who would not ordinarily qualify for free meals. These costs are offset by savings in administration and from economies of scale from serving more meals — and also by gains in learning when children are not hungry.

In Fayette County, 36 schools feed 19,501 students breakfast and lunch under this program. If this bill became law, more than 10,000 students would lose free meals while 17 schools in Lexington would have to reinstate applications.

It’s likely that some parents who can easily afford to pay for their kids’ lunches are benefiting. But such concerns are far outweighed by the advantages to schools, children and families. Kentuckians in Congress should support schools by opposing changes in the community eligibility program.

Lexington Herald-Leader

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