How Farm Bill Cuts Impact School Lunches

by Dana Woldow on November 13, 2012

The election is over, Prop 30 has passed and the immediate threat to education funding in California has abated, but school nutrition programs could still take a hit, both here and across the country. Those interested in school food reform should stay focused on the reauthorization of the Farm Bill (the most recent version of which is the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008) because both the bill itself, and the timing of when Congress gets back to dealing with it, contain some potential bombshells for student nutrition.

It’s bad enough that Congress seems determined to throw hundreds of thousands of poor kids out of the free school lunch program, forcing schools to choose between letting those kids go hungry, or using scarce education dollars to feed them. Will they really continue to squabble over the Farm Bill while the country operates under post World War II agricultural policy, and consumer milk prices double overnight?

The background is that the 2008 bill expired at the end of September 2012; both houses of Congress worked on new versions of the bill over the summer, and the Senate did pass its own version, but no consensus was reached in the House, and the 2008 bill was allowed to run out. House speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) said at the time that the House will take up the Farm Bill in the lame duck session, which starts November 13th. As the Washington Post explains, even without a new bill, programs like food stamps will continue operating until March 2013; about 80% of Farm Bill funding is for food stamps.

The House committee bill included a provision that would have eliminated from the food stamp rolls families whose income was below the poverty level, but who had managed to accumulate some small assets. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank focused on how low income people are impacted by proposed budget and tax policies, reports that under the House bill, a family could, for example, lose food stamp benefits if they own a modest car necessary for commuting to work. This change, if enacted, would result in 280,000 schoolchildren nationwide being removed from the free school lunch program, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Anytime a low income child loses their free meal eligibility, the child’s school is left in a troubling position. When the family does not have the resources to send lunch from home, should the child be left to go hungry at school? Some school districts, like San Francisco, have a policy of feeding all children in line, absorbing the loss if they are not able to recoup the cost from the family, but such generosity comes at a price. In 2011, the New York Times reported that New York City public schools had absorbed $42 million in unpaid lunch charges since 2004.

According to an October 2012 report called “What is the Farm Bill?”, when the 2008 Farm Bill was passed, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of mandatory programs over ten years at just over $600 billion; if that bill were to be continued, the cost for those same programs over the next 10 years is estimated at about $993 billion (just under a trillion dollars.)

The reason why the House was not able to reach agreement on a new bill is related to mandatory cuts which must be made. The August 2011 Budget Control Act created the so-called Congressional “super committee” to identify about a trillion dollars in cuts which could be made to the federal budget. A provision of the BCA included a threat of “sequester”, which Rep. Judy Chu (D., Calif.) calls “a fancy word for painful cuts to every area of the 2013 budget”, if the committee did not agree on their own list of cuts by November 2011. That didn’t happen, so now the sequester is set to take effect January 1st. Because of the super committee’s failure, and the subsequent triggering of sequestration, everyone knew going in last summer that there would have to be cuts made to the Farm Bill.

Thus, the Senate version of a new Farm Bill for 2012 called for about $23 billion in cuts over 10 years, including about $4.5 billion to food stamps (now called SNAP). The House Agriculture Committee version of the bill, however, contained about $35 billion in cuts over 10 years, including about $16 billion in cuts to food stamps. In fact, virtually the entire $12 billion difference between the total $23 billion in cuts proposed by the Senate, and the $35 billion in cuts proposed by the House Agriculture Committee, comes from additional cuts to food stamps.

Draconian as those cuts sound, the reason why the House never voted on the committee bill, according to the LA Times, was because the most conservative Republican House members wanted even deeper cuts. The Boston Globe reported in August that Paul Ryan’s proposed budget would have cut food stamps by a whopping $134 billion over ten years.

Another way in which the Farm Bill situation affects school lunch is through milk. USDA regulations require that milk be offered with every school breakfast and lunch for which government payment is provided, and the price schools pay for milk can fluctuate from month to month. In California, where dairy farmers are feeling especially pinched, milk prices are already starting to rise. For example, San Francisco public schools are paying $0.2733 per serving of 1% white milk this November, up from $0.2578 per serving in October.

Some provisions of the Farm Bill expired immediately on October 1st, while others will run out over the next few months. Food stamps, as noted, will continue to be funded until March; the dairy price support program, which helps stabilize milk prices, will expire on January 1st. Without a current Farm Bill in place, US farm policy reverts to the 1949 Agriculture Act, which was the last bill to be permanently enacted. It requires the government to purchase milk at higher than normal prices, which would drive the price up for consumers as well. Some believe milk prices will double, which would place an enormous burden on school food budgets.

If Congress fails to deal with the Farm Bill during the lame duck session, severely higher milk prices will likely be awaiting schools when they return after winter break. With most school food budgets already stretched thin trying to cover the requirements of the new Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act which went into effect this school year, there is no money left to pay double the cost for milk.

The balance of power in Washington remains much the same post election, with Democrats controlling the White House and the Senate, and Republicans in control of the House. Many of the same faces who couldn’t agree on farm policy last summer will be back at the bargaining table come November 13th. It’s time for our elected officials to get to work. As Kansas State University agricultural economist Barry Flinchbaugh, an advisor to legislators on shaping U.S. farm bills, says, “The problem is lack of leadership. We’ve elected a bunch of wing nuts who don’t understand compromise.”

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.

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