A bipartisan U.S. Senate bill that would have made changes to the $22 billion federal program that distributes free and reduced-priced meals in schools is officially dead, according to bill sponsor Pat Roberts, Republican U.S. senator from Kansas.
The school lunch, breakfast, and summer meal programs will continue to operate under the policies set in 2010 under the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act.
Roberts, who is also chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, announced that negotiations with colleagues in the House and Senate Democrats on a compromise bill that could pass both chambers had fallen through.
"It is unfortunate that certain parochial interests and the desire for issues rather than solutions were put ahead of the wellbeing of vulnerable and at-risk populations and the need for reform," Roberts said in a statement.
The Senate bill, also sponsored by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), aimed primarily to continue and expand school meal programs, but also instructed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to delay by two years the requirements to reduce sodium in school meals.
The bill also would have extended eligibility for the Women, Infants and Children program to age 6, bridging a gap that left many low-income families without enough food. About 8 million women and young kids use the program.
"We're extremely disappointed that there was no ability to move the Senate bill forward and the likely loss of WIC to Six, certification of infants to two years, and reasonable, commonsense review of Medicaid Adjunctive Eligibility," Douglas Greenaway, president and CEO of the National WIC Association, said in a statement.
A House committee passed a sharply different bill and negotiators couldn't hammer out differences. Members of the House Education Committee wanted to narrow the number of schools eligible to use the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows schools in high-poverty districts to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students, according to Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center. The House bill would also have created a pilot program to turn child nutrition program funding into block grants with no federal rules or nutrition criteria in three states.
Ultimately, Sen. Roberts said he expects to return to examining child nutrition policy in the next Congress.
It's a wait-and-see game, Weill says, until President-elect Donald Trump takes a stance.
"If we could see the Senate bill revived and a couple problems with it fixed and move with support from the president and the House, that would be great," Weill says.