Experts urge Congress to consider health implications in school meals debate

Topics: Public Health, Food/Nutrition, Obesity, Diabetes, Politics and Policy

By Rachel Schulze, senior staff writer

A food fight is brewing in Congress over competing proposals to renew a free school meals program, and experts warn the debate could have health implications for students.

The health benefits of a healthy meal

Research suggests that healthy school meals play a major role in children's well-being by easing food insecurity, improving dietary intake, and reducing obesity.

A research review conducted by the anti-hunger group Food Research & Action Center, revealed "[m]ounting evidence ... that healthy school meals play a key role in supporting the well-being of children, including alleviating food insecurity; improving dietary intake; and mitigating obesity." For instance, one study on pre-kindergarten and kindergarten lunches concluded school lunches are actually of higher nutritional quality than home-packed lunches.

Congressional food fight

Congress currently is weighing the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which is included in the larger Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) (PL 111-296). CEP allows eligible schools to provide free, nutritious breakfasts and lunches to all students without having to collect paper applications to check students' eligibility.

Currently, a school can participate in CEP if 40 percent of its students meet the automatic certification criteria, which include being homeless or receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. Schools also can group together to meet the eligibility threshold.

The Senate bill (S 3136) would leave the threshold at which a school qualifies for CEP at 40 percent, while the House bill (HR 5003) calls for raising the threshold to 60 percent. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected the proposed change would save about $1.6 billion over the next decade and affect about 8,500 schools. CBO estimated about 2,000 schools would group together to continue using CEP, while about 6,500 would be dropped from the program and have to resume collecting paper applications for students who wish to receive free meals.

In a fact sheet, the House Education and the Workforce Committee wrote, "The legislation will improve community eligibility by better targeting limited taxpayer resources to students most in need, including those who are homeless, in foster care, or part of a family eligible for programs like welfare or food stamps."

Costs vs. benefits

However, some experts say the cost savings from tightening CEP criteria do not outweigh the potential health harms associated with reducing nutritious meals to students from food insecure households.

Juliana Cohen, an adjunct assistant professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the $1.6 billion in projected savings "is actually a very small financial savings for the government." She added, "I think that it can be short-sighted to try to save a little bit of money on this when really we might actually be saving a tremendous amount of money by the potential improvements in health outcomes we may see when we're providing food-insecure children with these healthier diets every day."

For example, Cohen said that providing children with healthy meals could reduce children's risk of being overweight and, in the long term, potentially reduce the risk of diet-related chronic diseases, such as diabetes.

The House Education and the Workforce Committee in a release defended the proposed change and accused critics of using "doomsday scenarios and scare tactics." The committee argued that no students would lose eligibility for free meals under the House, saying, "All students in need will still be able to access healthy meals."

However, Cohen said that some parents are unlikely to complete an application form, meaning children who meet the criteria for free lunches but attend a school that no longer meets requirements for automatic enrollment could go without the free meals.

Further, Zoe Neuberger, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), in a blog post disputed the committee's claim that the change would "improve CEP by better targeting limited taxpayer resources to students most in need."  

According to Neuberger, in CEP schools, typically more than two-thirds of students would qualify for free or reduced-priced meals if schools used applications. She added, "In many participating schools, the share would be much higher.  And, in schools with such high concentrations of poverty, students who don't qualify for free or reduced-price meals are typically not much better off than those who do."