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Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN): We Need School Lunch Reforms

As a country, we have long worked to ensure all individuals have an equal opportunity to achieve success. A quality education is one of the best paths to a brighter future, but students cannot learn and succeed in class if they are hungry or lack proper nutrition. That’s why ensuring all kids have access to nutritious meals has long been a national priority, and why I am leading an effort in Congress to help do just that.

For years, a number of programs have helped states, schools and other institutions serve children and families in need. These programs and the services they offer play an important role in the lives of millions of low-income Americans, helping to deliver healthy meals to kids who might not have them otherwise. Then, in 2010, Washington got in the way — as it constantly does in so many areas of our lives.

Rather than heed calls to continue and improve these services, a Democrat-led Congress significantly expanded the federal role in child nutrition. The result? A wave of federal rules and mandates that made it harder for schools to meet the nutritional needs of children.

These heavy-handed reforms are expected to increase school costs by more than $3 billion — an enormous amount of money that schools simply cannot afford. At the same time, overall student participation has declined more rapidly than any other time in the past 30 years. Equally troubling are concerns from nonpartisan government watchdogs regarding the waste, fraud and abuse in these programs.

As chairman of the congressional subcommittee that oversees these programs, I’ve seen firsthand the effects of these consequences in our schools, and I’ve heard from school food directors and administrators who say federal rules prevent them from providing the assistance their students need.

I’ve also worked to develop a solution that will strengthen nutrition assistance for children, families and taxpayers. This proposal—the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act—will reform federal policies to give states, schools and local providers the flexibility they need to provide children access to healthy meals.

The bill will ensure nutrition standards reflect the input of school leaders, meet the needs of all students, and do not add new costs for schools. It will enhance the verification process to increase accountability and rein in waste, fraud and abuse. The proposal will provide states more flexibility to serve nutritious meals during the summer, especially to children in rural and low-income areas.

These are just some of the bill’s positive reforms, aimed at improving support for kids and families in need. Another example is a change to the Community Eligibility Provision. This provision allows schools to provide free meals to all students if 40percent or more of students are, among other factors, homeless, in foster care or in a family eligible for welfare assistance.

Created in 2010, this provision has provided some help to schools administering these programs, but it has also allowed taxpayer dollars to subsidize students who are not eligible for free school meals. That’s something Congress has tried to avoid since these programs were first created.

That is why my proposal would increase the threshold to 60 percent, making this provision of the law consistent with other policies affecting the school lunch program.

By improving community eligibility, we can increase the reimbursement schools receive for providing low-income children breakfast. This is the first time in more than 20 years schools would get additional assistance for serving students breakfast, and we do this at no additional cost to taxpayers.

While there is always room for disagreement, this should not be a partisan issue. Unfortunately, as is often the case when you try to change the status quo, partisan attacks are underway.

To be clear: Every child who is eligible to receive assistance today will still be eligible for assistance under our child nutrition bill. The legislation simply enables us to more effectively use taxpayer dollars and provide more help to those who need it most.

We, as Americans, have a responsibility to promote policies that spend taxpayer dollars wisely and a moral responsibility to look out for our most vulnerable children and families. The Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act helps us do both.

To read online, click here.

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