Panel OKs Ending U.S. Role in School Lunch Program : Congress: GOP’s plan substitutes state block grants for federal system that now guarantees children’s meals.


A Republican-dominated House committee Thursday rebuffed a Democratic effort to preserve the school lunch program that has fed tens of millions of children since it was created after World War II.

Voting strictly along party lines and ignoring President Clinton’s denunciation of such changes, the Economic Opportunities Committee endorsed a GOP initiative to roll the program into block grants to states as part of the GOP’s comprehensive welfare reform plan. The vote was 23 to 17.

In addition to ending the national school meal program, which guarantees free and subsidized lunches and breakfasts to some 25 million children, the measure would combine several other feeding programs into another grant and lump federal child-care programs into a third grant.


If the GOP initiative is enacted by Congress and signed into law, the federal government no longer would run the school-based meal programs or other nutrition programs for poor children and pregnant and breast-feeding women. Instead, states would receive block grants that would give them more flexibility in how the money could be used.

Over five years, states would receive $2 billion less for school meals and more than $5 billion less for other nutrition programs for poor women and children than under current law, according to an estimate by the Clinton Administration. Funding for the school meals program would start at $4.6 billion in 1996 and grow to $5.3 billion in the year 2000. The GOP plan would allow states to use 20% of the block grants for another purpose altogether.

“Republicans have successfully devastated the programs that feed hungry children in this country,” said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), calling the measure “mean-spirited and callous.”

“The target here is children and (Republicans) have little or no concern for the consequences of their actions,” he added.


And the Clinton Administration warned that the changes could result in permanent physical and intellectual setbacks for American children.

But Republicans defended their action, saying that it would enable states to provide better school lunches because it relieves them of burdensome federal regulations and paperwork. “The only thing we cut and gut is the bureaucracy in Washington,” said subcommittee Chairman Bill Goodling (R-Pa.).

They challenged the Democratic assumption that states would not be as generous as the federal government in providing for the nutritional needs of their children.

“I really believe the states can do it much better,” added Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham (R-San Diego), chairman of the subcommittee that drafted much of the legislative package.

Democrats were more critical of changes in the nutrition programs than of other Republican plans for changes in the welfare safety net. While there is broad consensus that the cash welfare system is greatly flawed, Democrats said, neither they nor the President believes that the nutrition programs needed fundamental changes.

“Here’s a program that isn’t broke, that’s done a world of good for millions and millions of children of all races and backgrounds all across our country. And I think it would be a terrible mistake to put an end to it, to gut it, to undermine it,” Clinton said Wednesday.

The welfare overhaul would save more than $40 billion over five years, GOP spokesmen said, largely by consolidating scores of current federal programs into block grants that would go to the states.

At a press conference after Thursday’s vote, Goodling said that the debate in his committee on school lunches underscored the philosophical rift between Republicans and Democrats over the welfare system. Republicans are intent on handing authority to the states, believing that they are more capable of solving the intractable problems of multi-generational poverty than the federal government.

“The argument essentially is not over whether you should have a school lunch program,” said House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), “it’s whether you trust the states to have a school lunch program or you think the only agency worthy of trust in America is Washington, D.C.”

Democrats, however, said that the federal government is the only entity that can guarantee access to services to all poor children and families who qualify for them.

Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.), who offered an amendment that would have preserved the school meal program, said that it had “improved the health of people in this nation” since it was created. Many American young men drafted to fight in World War II failed their physicals because of poor nutrition, he said.

The Department of Agriculture distributed a letter from Acting Secretary Richard Rominger, outlining the Administration’s “grave concerns” about GOP plans to eliminate federal programs that have had a “significant and measurable” impact on American children through the years.


Since 1976, growth stunting has decreased 65% and, over the last 30 years, the incidence of low birth weight has dropped and anemia among low-income preschoolers has decreased, the letter noted.

Another highly praised nutrition program targeted by the Republican overhaul is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, which is used by 6 million women and children. By the end of this year, if the GOP plan becomes law, 275,000 people would have to be denied access to the program, the Administration said.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who has been a chief advocate for nutrition programs for two decades, called the GOP “contract with America” a “contract against children.”

“When the House sends us this contract against children, it is dead on arrival in the Senate,” he said.