To school nutrition pros, it's 1995 all over again

By Helena Bottemiller Evich

05/19/2016 05:49 PM EDT

A new House bill that would launch a block grant pilot for school meal programs has school lunch ladies feeling like it's 1995.

It has been more than two decades since the School Nutrition Association found itself entrenched in a bitter fight against Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America, a platform that called for a full block grant of federal meals programs - a move decried by critics as a way to shrink and marginalize them. The idea stirred so much controversy, it was ultimately dropped and the saga still is remembered by many as the time Republicans got "school lunched."

This week the thorny idea of block-granting school meals resurfaced in the House Education and the Workforce Committee as part of a three-year, three-state pilot program contained in a larger child nutrition reauthorization bill. The committee voted 20-14 to advance the bill, including the pilot, on Wednesday.

While the legislation has next to no chance of becoming law anytime soon, school nutrition leaders see it as a shot across the bow and a sign that they are about to again face a major battle with Republicans.

"It feels like a repeat," said Shirley Watkins, a longtime school nutrition leader who served as undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services at the Agriculture Department in the 1990s. Watkins, who ran child nutrition programs at Memphis City Schools for nearly 20 years and served as SNA president in the late 1980s - the group was then-called the American School Food Service Association - said her former colleagues were "devastated" by the recent re-emergence of the block grant idea.

In fact, the entire school nutrition community has expressed shock over the development. That includes SNA, which had been working closely with the committee for several months to craft a bill that addresses many of its concerns by giving schools more flexibility on nutrition standards and increasing the reimbursement rate for breakfasts. The association, on Wednesday, reversed course and came out in strong opposition to the bill after the block grant pilot was added.

"The block grant pilot is the opening salvo in an aggressive, alarming attack on the future of school meals," said SNA President Jean Ronnei in a statement issued after the committee vote on Wednesday. "The provision opens the door to a broader effort to block grant school meal programs nationwide."

SNA has already rallied its members to make thousands of phone calls to Capitol Hill urging opposition to the legislation, which it had previously largely supported.

The committee appears to have added the pilot language to the legislation under pressure from conservatives who felt the draft bill that Rep. Todd Rokita initially circulated last month wasn't conservative or bold enough. For weeks, health advocates speculated the committee didn't have enough conservative support to pass the bill, but they didn't know Heritage Action, a hardline group, had gotten involved.

Heritage Action pressed for committee leaders to go further, as part of the group's broader push on Capitol Hill to ensure Republicans are sticking to more conservative principles and showing the voters what their "ideal" policies look like, Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, told POLITICO.

Conservatives felt like the committee's initial approach was "tinkering around the edges" and would largely lock in Democratic policy, Holler said. "There's certainly been chatter among conservatives that the draft didn't go far enough."

Republican budgets, after all, have been calling for block granting means-tested entitlement programs, a call to action that so far has been more focused on food stamps. Now, however, it's clear the national school lunch and breakfast programs, which serve roughly 30 million children every day, including those who are needy and also those who pay for their own meals, are on the agenda.

Rokita is a "passionate defender of block grants," Holler said. The Indiana Republican, who serves as chairman of the subcommittee on early childhood, elementary and secondary education and vice chairman of the committee on the budget, has also sponsored legislation to block grant Medicaid.

Asked whether Heritage is concerned the push for block grants could completely derail the child nutrition bill this year, Holler pointed out that there's only seven months left in the administration, so Republicans might be better off waiting.

The markup on Wednesday indicated there may be substantial support for block granting school meals. Two members of the committee, Reps. Dave Brat (D-Va.) and Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.), introduced amendments that would block grant the programs nationally - a much more sweeping proposal than a three-state pilot.

Brat withdrew his amendment, but Grothman got a recorded vote on his proposal. It was voted down, 9-25, a tally that shows nearly half of the Republicans on the committee are on board with the idea.

"I get about unanimous agreement with every superintendent in my state that this is what we should do," Grothman said during markup, adding that he believes the entire federal program "oozes contempt for those at the local level."

Democrats excoriated the bill as a step backward for children's health and accused Republicans of wanting to cut funding, similar to how the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grants played out. States now use TANF dollars for other health and welfare programs, or to fill budget gaps, and cash assistance has been greatly reduced overall.

Democrats have already started to experiment with catchy messaging on the child nutrition bill.  During markup, Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, the ranking member on the committee, tried unsuccessfully to rename the bill the "Hunger Games Act of 2016."

"This bill is more representative of child nutrition policy out of 'The Hunger Games.' President Snow would've written something like this," said Scott, referring to the fictional villain from the popular book and film series.

For his part, Rokita - who did not vote for a nationwide block grant - said his whole bill is misunderstood.

"Our bill in no way alters the eligibility requirements for students who receive free or reduced priced lunches," argued Rokita in a recent op-ed . "Again: Not one student currently eligible for meal assistance would be ineligible under this proposal. And unlike our Democratic president's recent bathroom edicts for schools, no money will be cut off for our poorest schools."

Indeed, the bill does not cut overall funding and it increases the reimbursement rate for school breakfast. The way the bill limits the Community Eligibility Provision wouldn't kick kids off the program who have been verified as being eligible; it would stop thousands of high-poverty schools from serving universal free meals. Hundreds of health and nutrition are opposed to the idea.

The changes to CEP, however, are modest compared to the block grant pilot unveiled this week. School nutrition leaders see any experimentation with block grants as an existential threat.

"Most egregious is what the committee labels SMALL block grant pilots," wrote Dorothy Caldwell, who also served as president of SNA in the 1990s, in an email. "Block grants may be small in number of states, but they are YUGE [sic] in policy implication."

"When will we learn to stop rehashing old debates and put the health and education of children ahead of political maneuvering?" Caldwell added.

School nutrition leaders who fought against block grants 20 years ago hope that SNA will learn from the past.

"We just need the playbook from 1995," said Watkins. "Where is our legislative playbook? That's what we need."

It got pretty rowdy in the 1990s. At one point, Gingrich had to cancel a planned speech at a Washington ballroom because there were 500 protesters outside waiving school lunch trays in the air and chanting, "No more cuts!" according to press reports.

Gingrich was reportedly shocked by the backlash. The nutrition community had rallied the National PTA and other education groups so they had a large coalition. Democrats joined them. Then-President Bill Clinton accused House Republicans of wanting to "cut the school lunch program and end it."

Watkins thinks Republicans have forgotten about the time they got "school lunched."

"They don't remember that at all, but I'll bet Newt Gingrich does," she said. "His advice should have been, 'Let's not do this.'"

"I didn't think I'd have to fight this battle again. I'm 78," Watkins said. "I certainly did not expect it to repeat in my lifetime."