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Will Trump target the school lunch program?

Nutrition advocates worry that a draft executive order seems to take aim at immigrant children who receive free and reduced-price meals.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Shaking up childhood nutrition programs was not one of the many promises that Donald Trump made on the campaign trail.

But the new president and the Republican-controlled Congress could drive major changes in the way the Philadelphia School District feeds thousands of students every day. Trimming budgets or eliminating regulations would be possibilities.

But a draft executive order restricting the use of public benefits by legal immigrants would be a dramatic change. The draft shows that the Trump administration is considering changes that could potentially shake Philadelphia’s universal-access food-service system to its core, imposing penalties on the families of students who use free and reduced-price lunch.

The exact implications of Trump’s draft executive order are “really unclear,” said Kathy Fisher of the Coalition Against Hunger. “In terms of the school lunch [program], I’m unclear how that would work out.”

But the draft order is clear in its intent, Fisher said.

“The way this is written, even using school meals would count against the family,” she said.

The order states that any “aliens,” whether documented or not, may be considered “inadmissible or deportable” if they use any benefit “for which eligibility or amount is determined in any way on the basis of income, resources, or financial need.” Legal immigrants could face deportation, and their sponsors could be forced to repay the cost of the benefits.

Similar restrictions have long applied to Medicaid and cash assistance, but not, for example, food stamps. A ban on the use of all means-tested benefits would be new, and its impact could be significant.

“Depending how broad the reach of his order, he could deport kids who have received reduced lunches in school,” an analyst for the Center for American Progress recently told the Washington Post.

District officials declined to comment on any possible policy changes.

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Education likewise declined to comment on specifics, saying only that childhood nutrition is a “critical investment” and that the state will be “monitoring potential changes to these programs closely.”

But given the Trump administration’s rollout of its lightly vetted travel ban, Fisher said, it’s possible that nutrition advocates, families and schools could soon be scrambling to respond to a sudden change.

“How are they going to enforce this? We have no idea,” Fisher said. “How do you keep track of which kids are eating a meal? In districts that are collecting applications, I think that families would not apply. Even if it’s a citizen kid of a non-citizen parent.”

Nutrition standards

Trump and his nominee for secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, haven’t taken strong positions on other aspects of school lunch programs, leaving observers uncertain about what they might prioritize.

“I’m afraid we can’t speculate at this point,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association, which represents school food-service interests in Washington. “We’re certainly hopeful that they will see the value of these programs and the need to provide them greater support.”

But many conservatives in Washington saw the election results as an opportunity to aggressively roll back the nutrition standards passed as part of the Obama administration’s Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The standards address sodium levels, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and snacks.

Most concretely, the “First 100 Days” plan from the GOP’s House Freedom Caucus, whose members are among the most conservative in the House, proposes eliminating what it calls the “burdensome and unworkable” rules.

“Kids aren’t eating the foods, industries can’t comply with the standards, and schools are wasting money,” the Caucus report said.

Critics have leveled those charges since the Obama regulations went into effect, and the rollout did create “some challenges” for schools and vendors, Pratt-Heavner said.

Fisher agreed. “Change is hard,” she said. “The first year, the whole-grain pizza didn’t sell very well. So they had to go back to the drawing board.”

Low-income participants

But since then, the available data suggest that schools, vendors, and students have adjusted and that more low-income students are receiving more nutritious meals.

In 2015, the USDA reported that 97 percent of schools were meeting nutrition standards. A 2014 Pew poll found that 72 percent of parents supported the federal nutrition regulations – including 56 percent of Republicans.

In a 2016 study, researchers at the University of Washington who tracked three years’ worth of meals for 7,200 urban middle and high school students – 1.7 million meals in all –- reported a 29 percent increase in nutritional value, a 13 percent decrease in calories, and no significant impact on student participation.

And although federal data from the General Accounting Office did find a recent decline in the number of school lunches purchased, research in 2015 from the University of Pennsylvania found an equivalent rise in the use of free and reduced-price lunches.

This suggests that while some students who can afford it choose other options, a rising number of low-income students are getting healthy meals.

“These students arguably need school meal access more than non-eligible students. … That is a good sign for the underserved communities of America,” the Penn report concluded.

However, for conservative advocates, the issue remains one of principle.

“It should not be the government dictating what schools are serving – that should be left to local decisionmakers,” said policy analyst Rachel Sheffield of Washington’s influential Heritage Foundation, which helped generate many of the proposals in the House Freedom Caucus’ agenda.

Sheffield and the Heritage Foundation are also pushing for other changes that could affect Philadelphia – most significantly, ending the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), under which schools can make free or reduced-price lunch available to all students if more than 60 percent of a school or district’s students are low income.

Districts including Philadelphia have praised the provision because it simplifies administration and expands access, eliminating the need for individual student applications.

But Sheffield says that taxpayers should not be asked to subsidize meals for students who aren’t needy and that removing the provision would prevent such subsidies from happening.

“It’s basically expanding welfare to middle- and upper-class students – turning the idea of welfare on its head,” Sheffield said. “That’s something that could be completely eliminated.”

Multiple paths to change

Whether there’s appetite among lawmakers to eliminate the Community Eligibility Provision is unclear. The House has considered relaxing its formula, but not removing it.

Ending nutrition standards would also face some pushback. Pratt-Heavner said her association would support some changes, such as easing low-sodium targets and whole-grain requirements, but on the whole, she said, “we strongly support the majority of the requirements.”

Pew’s parent survey found not only general support for nutrition standards, but high levels of support for specifics such as reducing salt and sugar. For example, 91 percent of parents support requiring fruits or vegetables with every meal.

Nonetheless, the Trump administration and Congress would have several avenues to make changes.

Congress could trim program budgets during the annual appropriation process. It could take up more substantial changes by reauthorizing the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act – something it has delayed for several years. It could bundle various changes into a “reconciliation” bill or even shift the entire program to the kind of block grant favored by House Speaker Paul Ryan.

And nutrition regulations and the CEP could be removed through the rarely used Congressional Review Act, which is now being invoked to roll back some Obama-era environmental regulations.

“That could essentially be done anytime,” Sheffield said.

Whether such changes would get a foothold even in a Republican-controlled Congress is impossible to say. Childhood nutrition programs serve a wide range of constituents in rural and urban districts alike and have the backing of both social service advocates and agricultural interests.

But whether through tinkering by Congress or a major shift from the White House, Fisher said, nutrition advocates need to start preparing for change.

“Random executive orders may come without much warning. But really it does come down to budget proposals later this spring. It’s not too soon for people to call their elected officials and say, ‘we care about nutrition programs,’” Fisher said. “We really are in a different time if kids’ nutrition programs have big bull’s eyes on them.”

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