Fortunately, Congress has the opportunity to address both those problems by passing the child nutrition bill when it reconvenes for the lame duck session after the elections. The bill before the House received unanimous, bipartisan support in the Senate, is fully paid for, and provides an additional $4.5 billion in much-needed resources, along with common-sense reforms to ensure our kids have greater access to nutritious meals in school.
In advocating for the bill, some have pitted reducing hunger against addressing obesity. That is an outdated notion. We can’t choose whether to help hungry kids or obese kids – all too often, they are the same kids. The restricted budgets responsible for episodes of hunger lead many families to fill up on inexpensive foods high in calories, but low in nutrition. By ensuring that those families have access to food that is both reliable and nutritious, we can reduce hunger and obesity simultaneously.
In the school lunch and other child nutrition programs – and the child nutrition bill -- nutrition quality and program access must go hand in hand. It's essential that child nutrition programs provide healthy food to low-income kids, otherwise the programs do not fulfill their mandate. At the same time, healthy food doesn’t do children any good if they don’t have access to it.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is the best child nutrition reauthorization Congress has put forward in decades. The bill makes significant reforms to address hunger and obesity by expanding access while at the same time improving the nutritional quality of school foods. Specifically:
o It would make it easier for children receiving Medicaid benefits to participate in school meal programs. About 120,000 more low-income children would receive free school meals each year as a result of the bill.
o 2,500 schools would be able to use new approaches to offering universal free lunches and breakfasts to children.
o The bill includes a bipartisan provision, supported by health groups and the food and beverage industry that would have the U.S. Department of Agriculture update the nutrition standards to improve the offerings through school vending machines. This historic public health provision is the result of a decade-long crusade by Representative Woolsey (D-Calif.) and Senators Harkin (D-Iowa) and Murkowski (R-Alaska).
o The bill would provide the largest increase in school lunch reimbursements in 30 years (6 cents per lunch, which would be tied to schools meeting stronger school lunch standards). School meal quality also would be enhanced through stronger technical assistance to schools, improved meal financing, and increased accountability.
o By 2020, 29 million additional after-school suppers would be served to at-risk children, and after-school sites would receive roughly $14,000 in additional revenue per site, on average, per fiscal year.
o Schools would receive $40 million for farm to school and school garden programs to bring more healthy foods into schools and support local agriculture.
The child nutrition bill is funded for the next 10 years, in part, by moving up the sunset date for a temporary increase to SNAP benefits by five months. While ending this temporary increase early is a difficult choice, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act would benefit struggling families by ensuring kids have access to reliable, healthy meals for the next decade. In addition, House leaders and the White House are working to resolve members' concerns about the way the bill is paid for and USDA has committed to stretching every dollar to expand program access for low-income families.
Support for the child nutrition bill is strong. It is a top priority for the First Lady and USDA Secretary Vilsack. Child nutrition is a popular, understandable issue for constituents. More than 80% of Americans support expanding the Child Nutrition Act to "provide healthier food and cover more kids.” Over 100 health, education, anti-hunger, and industry groups support the bill, including the National PTA, American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, Feeding America, Share Our Strength, Mars, the Coca-Cola Company, and PepsiCo.
Congress has already passed two extensions for this bill, delaying renewal of the child nutrition programs for more than a year. Another extension would cause kids to lose out on the strong reforms and $4.5 billion in resources already passed by the Senate. Children shouldn’t have to wait any longer.
No child should be hungry in America today. But they also shouldn't be fed meals that put them at risk of heart disease and diabetes. It is impossible to choose whether it is more tragic for a child to experience bouts of hunger or go blind from diabetes. Congress must curb both childhood hunger and obesity. The next key step is to pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act when Congress returns for the lame duck session.
Margo G. Wootan is the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit advocacy organization that specializes in food and nutrition.