It's ironic that the high proportion of students from low-income families in Philadelphia's public schools should inoculate them from misguided legislation that threatens to make millions of children ineligible for free and discounted school breakfasts and lunches.
The misnamed Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act, which has already passed a congressional committee, would make proper nutrition harder for children who get their only decent meals at school. The bill would end a "community eligibility" policy that originated in Philadelphia. By eliminating the individual application process in schools where most students qualify for free meals, the policy ensures that eligible children aren't denied meals just because their parents didn't fill out paperwork. Ending the application process also means needy children don't have to endure any stigma because the meals are available to all.
Unfortunately, U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita (R., Ind.), the bill's sponsor, doesn't seem to care about that. He is more concerned that children who can afford to pay for meals don't have to under a federal law that mimics Philadelphia's "universal feeding" policy.
The federal law, passed in 2010, says a school may offer free meals to all its students when at least 40 percent of them come from families that receive poverty assistance. Rokita's bill would raise that threshold to 60 percent.
"Not one student currently eligible for meal assistance would be ineligible under this proposal," Rokita said. But his bill would take the country back to the bad old days when thousands of children who were eligible for free meals were going hungry at school because no one at home had taken the time to fill out an application. Blame their parents if you want, but why make children suffer when there is a simple alternative? Rokita is also ignoring children who could miss meals because their family income narrowly excludes them from eligibility.
Rokita's legislation (H.B. 5003), which would also weaken rules requiring schools to serve more fresh fruit and vegetables, would force more than 7,000 U.S. schools to once again require applications and monitor student eligibility in lunch lines, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It would affect students in 246 Pennsylvania schools, including 70 schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia system, as well as 62 schools in New Jersey and 73 in Delaware.
The bill's supporters say cutting back on free meals would save $1 billion over 10 years that could be applied to other nutritional programs for children. But if the goal is to make sure more children are eating right, there is no better place for that money to be spent than in school lunchrooms.