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School lunch opt-out bill too much to swallow

A bill that would allow Arizona schools to opt out of a federal program that subsidizes lunches for poor children proved too much of a lightning rod for its sponsor, who requested the measure be shelved for the session.

The bill, SB1061, stalled this week in the House after its author, Sen. Rich Crandall, asked for it to be held because he said it became a distraction to other education bills he sees as a priority.

The Mesa Republican asked the House Education Committee chairwoman to kill the bill on March 12, even though Crandall said he believed it had the votes to pass. The measure sailed through the Senate last month, 19-10.

“I can run this one next year,” Crandall said.

The measure would have allowed Arizona schools to opt out of the National School Lunch Program, which offers low-income pupils free or reduced-price lunches at most public schools. Charter schools and private schools are exempt from the federal program.

Numerous advocacy organizations and education associations opposed the proposed opt-out, saying it would only lead to poor kids not getting basic nutrition, while providing no benefit to the state’s general fund, since costs incurred by schools are paid for by money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Timothy Schmaltz of Protecting Arizona’s Family Coalition had opposed the bill and said he was happy to hear it was pulled, because it would have only hit an already struggling group of Arizonans — kids from poor families.

“This was not going to help needy children, and we know hungry children don’t learn,” Schmaltz said. “There are some things that just need to be done, including making sure that children have a good meal each day.”

Sen. David Lujan, D-Phoenix, also opposed the bill and said leaving the program in place will ensure that low-income families can still at least count on having one square meal for their children.

“It sends the wrong message to let schools opt out of this program.

School lunch shouldn’t be optional,” Lujan said. “I know from working with schools and children from very low income families, for many kids this is the best meal they get every day, or even the only meal they get every day.”

Crandall had argued that the proposal was a response to an overhaul of the federal program’s rules, which he and others said could increase school districts’ lunch costs to the point that additional money from schools’ general fund appropriation might have to be spent to supplement the program.

The new federal rules require specified amounts of fruits and vegetables to be served in each meal, and require only fat-free or low- fat milk to be served.

“Every school will make less off of school lunch than they did in the past,” Crandall said of the new federal rules.

One positive outcome from having to kill the bill, Crandall said, is that the first phase of the new rules will go into effect on July 1 of this year, so as school districts change their lunch program to comply with the new rules, the real financial impact can be measured.

“We’ll have one year under our belt, and we’ll see if there is a financial hit,” Crandall said.

On a more philosophical level, Crandall said, the new program rules take away local decision making, by allowing the federal government to further restrict and dictate the way schools provide lunches to needy children.

Crandall has also argued that his proposal would restore the optional participation in the program, which is how Arizona handled the program until 2006, when it was made mandatory for Arizona schools.

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