Rep. Rokita defends school lunch proposal, questions ‘universal government feeding’

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INDIANAPOLIS – Congressman Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) started the school lunch portion of his speech, at the Rotary Club of Indianapolis, with a caveat.

“You might not like everything I say today,” he said Tuesday.

Rokita then ended with this anecdote.

“If you go to my Facebook page, which I try not to do,” he said. “You’ll see that I’m going to hell and I’m a monster.”

Rokita is well aware of the criticism surrounding his proposal to change the federal school lunch program.

But he is just as committed to what he sees as the long-term benefits to the change.

“When you know you’re doing the right thing in a responsible way to help the kids most in need,” he said in an interview with CBS4. “That’s the wind behind my sails.”

The legislation, which passed the House Education and Workforce Committee earlier this month, would reduce the number of public schools where all students receive free or reduced lunch. It would also halt a number of nutrition mandates championed by First Lady Michelle Obama.

Currently schools can offer free meals to every student if at least 40 percent of its student population already federally qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Rokita’s proposal would raise the threshold to 60 percent.

“Before you give 100 percent of the kids free lunch, whether they need it or not, this at least makes sure a majority actually qualifies for it.”

Rokita said the change would result in $1 billion saving during the next decade, which could be reinvested to help expand summer and breakfast programs in schools.

“We think it’s not good health policy,” Ron Gifford said, CEO of Jump IN for Health Kids. “And we think it’s not good public policy.”

Jump IN for Healthy Kids is one of 750 organizations nationwide that signed a letter, critical of the legislation.

The Center on Budget and Policy in Washington estimated 120 Indiana schools, serving nearly 58,000 students, would no longer qualify for school-wide free meals under the legislation.

“Seems to us we should be making it easier for school districts to provide healthy meals to students in those districts,” Gifford said.

Rokita, alongside other Republicans on Capitol Hill, have questioned the federal subsidies all together.

“Why are we involved in federal government universal feeding?” Rokita said.

But this bill, he said, is more about school reimbursement and finding ways to reinvest federal dollars without increasing the debt.

“Every child who is currently eligible is still eligible under my proposal,” he said. “But here’s the problem. We have these very same critics have come to me and said breakfast meals haven’t been increased since the 1980s, the summer meals need streamlining and expanded to kids who really need it. And I agree with all of that. But when you ask them how should we pay for that, or what is less of a priority if this is a priority, you get crickets.”

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