Maybe you’ve heard someone at a conference you attended talking about block grants. Or maybe you saw someone at the Annual National Conference (ANC) last year, rocking a flashy #StopTheBlock button. Today I’d like to explain what block grants are, what they would mean for child nutrition programs if passed, and how we can fight back.

In 2016, a bill was approved by the House Education and Workforce Committee to “convert the school lunch and breakfast programs into a capped block grant in up to three states.” This bill would essentially change school meal rules and funding – without any measures to ensure that the programs could respond to economic downturns, natural disaster relief, or even meeting children’s basic nutritional needs. Since this bill was introduced, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) has been leading the charge the #StopTheBlock.

Stop the Block

SNA’s Block Grant Task Force

To build on these efforts to stop the block, SNA assembled a Block Grant Task Force to identify the full impact of block grant funding on school nutrition programs, SNA members and the Association, and to develop an action plan to avert the block grant proposals. The committee is made up of 19 members representing SNA’s diverse membership, including school nutrition directors, State Agency staff, industry partners, and me – a marketing specialist for school nutrition software provider, PrimeroEdge. We met for two days in early December in Alexandria, VA to conduct a review of the potential dangers of block grants. We also devised our best strategies for informing and mobilizing SNA members to defeat any block grant proposals.

What are block grants, anyways?

Block grants are a proposal presented by the U.S. Education and Workforce Committee to give local control back to the states, as well as a means to reign in a federal deficit that is spiraling out of control. This would mean significant funding cuts to the child nutrition program – a program that was promised in 1946 that students would always have access to healthy meals at school. Today, more than 30 million students rely on federally funded school meals to provide the nutrition they need to succeed – and this may be the only meal or meals of the day they get. If an entitlement that was promised to schools and students took a cut in funding, this could be a huge broken promise to child nutrition programs everywhere. Use the School Nutrition Association’s Block Grant Calculator to see an estimate of the funding cuts that could happen at your district. The results may surprise you…and not in a good way.

In addition to funding cuts, block grants would also eliminate the need for federal nutrition standards. Schools would be unable to serve additional at-risk students when economic downturns or rising enrollments increase the number of children who need free or reduced price meals.  Even children who need temporary assistance due to a natural disaster, or a sudden change to income (such as a layoff) could be denied school meals.

No district should ever be put in this predicament. Kids deserve to eat nutritious meals at school – end of story. The proposal of block grants and funding cuts to child nutrition programs in the U.S. would lead to some big issues, as spelled out below.

Issue #1: Too Many “Chiefs”

If block grants are passed into legislation, the local control will be given back to the states – but that is 50 different states, and 50 different ‘kings’ or ‘chiefs’. The regulations, rules and requirements would be different for each state, which would be incredibly difficult to keep up with for vendors. Some of your favorite vendors might even pull out of the K-12 market due to the complications that the diverse nutritional standards for all 50 states would present.

Issue #2: Compromised Nutritional Quality of Meals

If school nutrition programs are faced with huge budget cuts and are simply trying to make ends meet, they may be forced to choose the cheapest options to feed their students. And, as we all know, the cheapest options are usually the unhealthiest. Think about the foods that college students eat when they’re “broke” – boxed mac ‘n’ cheese, the McDonald’s dollar menu, and ramen noodles. Not the best choices, but it keeps them alive. With block grants in place, rather than being regarded as nutrition hubs, child nutrition programs would operate more like soup kitchens.

Issue #3: (Lack of) Emergency Relief

Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico were devastated by the impact of hurricanes in 2017. And think about all the schools that had to close, but were open solely as feeding sites during the rampant wildfires in California. After Hurricane Matthew decimated North Carolina in 2007, 40,000 students became eligible for free or reduced price meals, and many schools opened as emergency feeding sites. With block grants in place, funding would be reduced to all child nutrition programs, and their number one goal would be to feed their students. But without additional funds to assist in emergency relief efforts, schools would not be able to help feed the hungry (or the displaced) in their communities.

How can I #StopTheBlock?

There are several ways you as a child nutrition professional can get involved with standing up to the entities who want to cut necessary funding our programs.

  1. Visit org/TakeAction to send an Action Alert to your member of Congress.
  2. Set up a call with your member of Congress, or even plan to invite him or her to have lunch at your district so you can discuss how block grants would negatively affect the future of child nutrition. Check out this guide for setting up a site visit.
  3. Read the 2018 SNA Position Paper to understand how our association plans to take action to stop the block in 2018.
  4. Attend the LAC webinar on Feb 1 to learn more about any updates or other actions you can take.
  5. Attend the 2018 Legislative Action Conference and “charge the hill” to get your messages across to your state’s Congressional delegation.

Share your thoughts!

In what way would block grants affect your child nutrition program the most? How are you getting involved to stop the block? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!