Child Nutrition Reauthorization: Where The Debate In Washington Heads Next

Posted by Erica Prismantas on May 27, 2016 8:52:52 AM


The following post was written by Barry Sackin of Sackin & Associates

In my last blog post, we talked about reauthorization and gave a first look at what’s in the Senate bill.  Today we will provide an update on CNR in Congress and look at some of the other school nutrition issues in the Senate bill.

The Clock’s Ticking

In February, the Senate Agriculture Committee reported out its Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill. As this post is being drafted, they are still seeking time on the Senate floor to move the bill.  The bill, which was discussed in the last post and further discussed below, is a delicate, bipartisan balance.  It was the Committee’s hope that the bill would be “cost neutral”.  This means that any new spending would be offset by savings.  However, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) that “scores” the costs of legislation came back with a price tag of $1 billion over ten years.  While there are some parts of the CBO score that are questionable, it seems unlikely that they can make enough adjustments to bring the bill back to $0.  How the Senate deals with that remains to be seen.

On the other side of the Hill, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce (E&W) has posted a draft bill that they intend to bring before the committee soon.  What’s in the House bill will be the topic of the next blog post.  However, the bill is getting a lot of resistance.  Democrats in the House see it as a very partisan bill.  And people in the advocacy community are pushing back against a number of provisions.  As of this writing, the Committee has not scheduled a “mark up” of the bill where the committee votes on moving it forward.

There are fewer than 60 legislative days in this session of Congress.  Is that enough time to get a bill through both houses, find a mutually agreeable compromise between the two versions, and have the President sign it?  Possibly not.  Stay tuned.

More on the Senate Bill

There are several additional sections of the Senate bill that are important.  The first deals with verification.  A number of studies (GAO, USDA Inspector General and the USDA Office of Analysis, Nutrition and Evaluation APEC study) have pointed to a very high error rate in school meal programs.  The error rate from “erroneous payments” is more than $2 billion, about 15% of the total budget for these programs.  The catchall phrase we hear frequently is “waste, fraud and abuse”.  The issue of program integrity has been around for a long time.  It was last significantly addressed in the 2004 CNR.  The problem is real.  How to deal with it is the challenge.

At a hearing a few months back, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was asked about increasing the verification sample to reduce error.  His response suggested that the question came as a surprise for which he was unprepared.  He said he thought maybe increasing form 3% to 10% would help.  That number has stuck.  The Senate bill would increase verification to 10% with reductions for meeting certain criteria.  Furthermore, another section would allow states to increase to as much as 15% for districts deemed to be poor performers.

I was part of a coalition in 2003-04 that dealt with the issue of program integrity and changes to verification requirements.  Our arguments, which are still true today, are that verification cannot catch actual fraud, of which there is very little in the program, and puts a lot of eligible recipients at risk.  We were successful in preventing much harsher requirements then.  It will be harder to win the fight today, in large part because of Secretary Vilsack’s testimony.  House staff seem to understand the issue, but are constrained because USDA has put it out there and the Senate has incorporated the 10% figure in its bill.

The second issue is Paid Meal Equity (PME).  As you know, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act included a provision requiring districts to increase the price charged for paid meals until revenue from paid meals was in parity with the free reimbursement rate.  Leaving all of the technical details aside, PME is partially responsible for losing almost two million paid meals per day out of the lunch program.  The Senate bill changes the law giving schools more flexibility in how they meet the shortfall in paid meal prices.  But this misses the point.  The assumptions underlying PME are seriously flawed.  House committee staff are taking a much different view of PME, and we have hope that their bill will fix the problem.  We’ll have to wait to see whether their approach will win out in Congress.

Lastly, there is one provision in the Senate bill of which I’m particularly pleased.  It’s a small, technical change that can really help schools.  As you know, your states ask you for your USDA Foods requests in early spring, but you don’t know how much your USDA Foods entitlement will be until July.  Even worse, because of specific and conflicting language in the law, even that amount is adjusted in November.  The Senate bill includes language requested by the American Commodity Distribution Association that would have USDA calculating your actual entitlement and publishing it by February 15 each year.  That would mean you’d know how much you have before you place orders.  Again, a small detail that could have big benefits.

Depending on publication of this blog post, the bills may advance before you read this.  Look for updates and more information in the near future.

About the author

Barry SackinBarry Sackin is a school foodservice veteran of more than 35 years. Barry started his career on staff at San Diego Unified School District in 1980. Barry was a director of large districts for several years, at one point overseeing two districts with more than 70 sites and nearly 45,000 students.  While serving on the SNA Board of Directors, Barry was asked to join the staff as VP of Public Policy and has since worked on child nutrition policy for the past 20 years.

Topics: School Nutrition Regulation