Child-Food Programs Inch Toward First-in-Decade Redo in Congress

  • Standards for school lunches remain a sticking point
  • Trump administration relaxed rules for whole grain, sodium

Senate Republicans are close to finishing a child nutrition program reauthorization bill, the chairman of a key committee said.

“We have language we’re sharing that with our counterparts” on the Democratic side, Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, said in an interview. The bill is “pretty well complete,” he said.

Child nutrition programs, which include the federal school lunch program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, better known as WIC, haven’t been reauthorized in almost 10 years. The House Education and Labor Committee and Senate Agriculture Committee have jurisdiction over the policy decisions, while funding has been continued through annual appropriations.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Nutrition standards for school lunches remain a sticking point in Congress.

The WIC program served about 7 million recipients per month in fiscal 2018 and cost $5.3 billion, according to the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service. Child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program totaled more than $23 billion in fiscal 2018.

Roberts said he hopes aides can begin negotiating during the July Fourth recess, and his panel can approve a bill before the annual August congressional recess, a goal he laid out in April.

“That might be too optimistic, but that’s a target date I’ve suggested” to Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the panel, he said. The Senate has a five-week recess scheduled starting Aug. 2, and the House will be out for six weeks as of July 26.

‘Water’ Down

In the House, negotiations have been dogged by disagreements over school-lunch nutrition standards and other priorities.

Some on the committee, “I don’t think majority, want to water down the standards,” said Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in an interview.

The Trump administration has rolled back President Barack Obama’s nutrition standards for school meals by allowing 1% flavored milk and easing whole grain and sodium requirements. The Agriculture Department published the final rule last year and Republicans have since tried to expand the rules further.

One example is Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), a member of the House Education and Labor Committee who introduced a bill earlier this year that would allow a whole-milk lunch option.

The measure (H.R. 832) was also introduced by Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who regained the gavel of the House Agriculture Committee after Democrats won control of the chamber in the 2018 midterm elections.

Specific nutrition standards is “one area of disagreement I would identify” as areas of discussion, Scott said. He declined to provide details.

On Deck

Stabenow voiced skepticism that the House has made as much progress as the Senate.

“There’s a lot of things that they’re focused on right now and I’ve not heard they’re close to having a bill,” she said in an interview.

Scott said the committee’s priority is getting a higher education reauthorization bill right now, which is in a similar spot as Child Nutrition. Although it seems not a lot of progress in the House has been made, Scott said his panel still plans on introducing its own version. “We’ll go in parallel tracks,” he said.

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Scott said he is “not sure right now” if a House bill could be reported out of committee by August.

Another issue likely to be brought up in negotiations is the Community Eligibility Provision, a federal program that allows districts to offer free meals to all students, regardless of income.

The provision is touted as a way to block schools from publicly identifying a child who doesn’t have funds for a meal or has outstanding credit, such as by requiring a wristband or hand stamp.

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To contact the reporter on this story: Teaganne Finn in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at; Robin Meszoly at