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What’s On The Menu For School Lunch Reform Under Trump

Video by Megan Burks

San Diego hunger relief agencies and schools are worried federal budget cuts and a Republican Congress will spell less funding for school meals. But there's one piece of the G-O-P agenda that has some excited. KPBS education reporter Megan Burks has the story.

Some in San Diego are bracing for cuts to school meals. Others are looking forward to an overhaul of nutrition standards. And immigrants worry a free lunch could make them a target.

President Donald Trump's budget proposal would cut the U.S. Department of Agriculture by nearly 21 percent. The USDA is responsible for nutrition programs in and out of schools, but how the cuts will play out in school cafeterias isn't yet known.

That would get hammered out when Congress tries once more to pass Child Nutrition Reauthorization legislation. The package of laws is supposed to be re-upped every five years but hasn't made it out of a previously divided Congress.

Now with Republicans in power, schools and hunger relief groups are gearing up for big change.

Tougher Requirements For School-Wide Free Lunch

Those groups are looking at failed GOP proposals as a roadmap for where Republican lawmakers might go this year.

That includes a proposal to increase the threshold that qualifies schools to offer free meals to all of their students. Currently, if 40 percent of a school's student body is already enrolled in other public assistance programs such as CalFresh, the school can offer free meals to all of its students to ensure hungry children don't fall through the cracks. Many families who are eligible still don't enroll in the programs that qualify their children for free school meals because of stigma, a burdensome application process, or simply not knowing about them.

In 2016, House Republicans proposed raising the threshold to 60 percent to limit spending on children who don't need assistance. An analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated 18,000 schools would no longer qualify.

Block Grants Instead Of Need-Based Funding

The House bill also proposed a pilot program to give states a block grant for school lunches instead of having it rise and fall with student need. This is similar to the GOP's approach to Medicaid health care funding; states get a set sum and are left holding the bag for any costs they incur on top of that.

The concern there is that if more students suddenly fall into poverty because of an economic downturn, the grant won't come close to covering the cost, and efforts to increase the grant could come too late.

Robin McNulty, director of school nutrition programs for the San Diego Hunger Coalition, said such provisions could scale back programs in San Diego County that the region is trying to scale up to serve unmet needs.

"We know a couple things. One in four children go to school each day without breakfast," McNulty said. "And we know that approximately 90,000 children who are eligible for and participate in school meals during the school year do not participate in summer meals."

Photo by Megan Burks

Fay Elementary student Jamir, 10, tastes a kumquat from Sahu Subtropicals farm in Pauma Valley. He says it's sour and won't be eating another one. But thanks to a federal summer lunch program, he can eat other fresh fruit and vegetables when his school cafeteria is closed.

Beyond The Cafeteria

It's unclear what might happen to the USDA's Child and Adult Care Food Program. That provides funds for community groups to provide meals when school is out, and it covers meals in child care centers. McNulty and others say they're bracing for a cut there, too.

And Feeding San Diego said outreach and nutrition education at school-based food pantries could be impacted if Congress approves cuts to the Corporation for National and Community Service, which funds AmeriCorps members who work for the food bank.

AmeriCorps also provides workers for many other San Diego nonprofits.

Immigration Enforcement And Hunger

Hunger Coalition Executive Director Anahid Brakke said she's worried access to nutrition programs could be further impacted by Trump's immigration policies.

She said she expects fewer students to participate in free school lunch, summer lunch and afterschool programs that provide snacks or meals as immigrant families fearful of deportation retreat from public life.

"One partner up in North County said they've got a 25 percent drop in their youth afterschool program. And afterschool, that's a key time to reach kids with afterschool meals," Brakke said. "So as we're trying to look at how to address child hunger, it's the school meals, which are maybe in danger, it's the afterschool meals, where maybe parents are feeling reticent to send them."

That partner is North County Lifeline and confirmed the drop. Feeding San Diego said all of its partners in the North County that offer meals through the Child and Adult Care Food Program have seen drops. Residents and community groups have reported an increased presence of immigration agents in the area.

Feeding San Diego Director of Programs Kelcey Ellis said participation hasn't dropped at school-based programs such as school pantries and backpack food distributions.

Parents in the country illegally can claim nutrition benefits for their citizen children. But Brakke said she's heard from people who believe participation in school lunch programs or CalFresh would render them a "public charge," which could be fueling afterschool participation drops.

Under immigration law, a public charge is an immigrant in the country illegally who is dependent on public cash assistance or is institutionalized at the government's expense, making him or her ineligible for legal status down the road.

In December, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued guidance saying nutrition programs do not render individuals a public charge. Brakke said parents currently have no reason to fear being enrolled in such programs.

Photo by Megan Burks

Sally Spero compares a breakfast she served before the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act — eggs and potatoes — with one she could serve under the law's nutrition regulations — two whole grain Pop Tarts and two fruit cups, March, 17, 2017.

Softening Nutrition Regulations

There's one piece of the GOP agenda that has some in the school nutrition world excited: a roll back of stringent, Obama-era school nutrition standards.

House Republicans have already said scaling back these regulations — contained in Michelle Obama's Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act — is high on their agenda. Sally Spero, nutrition director with the Lakeside Union School District, and her colleagues in the School Nutrition Association say that day can't come soon enough.

"The legislation was never field tested or piloted and it has had a lot of unintended consequences for school meal programs," Spero said.

Under the Obama administration, schools had to cut progressively more and more salt from their meals. Spero said under the next round of sodium cuts, even cottage cheese and canned tomatoes are no-nos. And she said regulations meant to increase consumption of whole grains and fruit mean she can't serve eggs for breakfast without a special waiver, but could get away with serving two whole grain Pop Tarts.

Spero applies for the waiver because she prefers to serve foods cooked from scratch over packaged meals tailored to the regulations. Her baker had to source special flour to make sandwich rolls that meet the standards, and she has to be really careful with baking soda, which contains salt.

But McNulty cautioned making sweeping changes. She said students are benefitting from the higher standards and many of the worries districts had when the law was passed, like kids tossing instead of eating healthy food, didn't happen in the long run.

"There has not been a decrease in the number of children participating in these meal programs, and it's the right thing to do to keep the children as healthy as possible," McNulty said.

A repeal of the nutrition standards has already been introduced in the House but could be tough to pass. It's tucked into a bill that would also establish a school voucher program.

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