In the world of food policy and nutrition there are always pieces of legislation that capture our attention a little more than others. Recently, conversations began about Child Nutrition Reauthorization, a large piece of legislation that authorizes programs such as the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, Summer Feeding Programs, and the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). If you are a school nutrition director, or you work in the public health nutrition space, Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) is something you are all too familiar with.
The programs authorized by CNR are significant: on an average day, over 30 million children receive school lunch and 15 million receive school breakfast. The National School Lunch Program was created in the 1940s after General Lewis Hershey testified before Congress that recruits were being rejected due to malnutrition. Today, military leaders are again sounding alarm bells, this time because recruits are too overweight to serve. With rising rates of obesity and diabetes, a strong foundation of good child nutrition has never been more important.
Although CNR is supposed to be reauthorized every five years, the last reauthorization occurred in 2010 with the passing of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA). The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was a groundbreaking overhaul that included new nutrition standards for foods sold in schools, funds for Farm to School programs, and expansions and increased support for afterschool meals program, summer feeding programs, and WIC. Because legislators were unable to come to an agreement and pass the reauthorization in 2016, the programs authorized within CNR continue to operate under a continuing resolution (CR). Recently, legislators began the reauthorization process again with a “Perspectives on Child Nutrition Reauthorization” Senate Hearing in April. Witnesses from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services (FNS), the Government Accountability Office (GAO), food banks, and school districts came before the Senate to share research and their experiences as subject matter experts on the programs authorized by CNR. Throughout the hearing, a main theme was the importance of proper nutrition in child development and academic performance.
As someone who has worked closely with federal nutrition programs, I am eager to see what CNR will include. There are incredible policy opportunities within this legislation to make improvements to school meal programs and WIC. Combining my experience and education in the child nutrition and public health world, here are four main topics and areas of opportunity that I will be paying attention to during CNR!
WIC participation has been declining: WIC participation peaked in 2009 and has been declining steadily ever since. In 2014, only 29% of eligible 4-year-olds participated in WIC. A number of reasons have been given for the steady decline, including a growing economy, lower birth rates, certification barriers, and customer service issues. The difficulty of getting certified and the amount of time WIC visits take were brought up repeatedly during the Senate hearing. Many witnesses at the hearing suggested cross-enrollment between WIC and other services such as Medicaid and SNAP, also known as adjunctive eligibility, to decrease barriers. Some lawmakers have suggested increasing the age limit from 5 to 6. This would ensure children are enrolled in school and receiving meals through school nutrition programs so that there are no gaps between receiving WIC benefits and receiving school meals.
Summer feeding continues to be a challenge and an opportunity: In 2011, FNS created the Summer EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) program for children, to reduce child hunger while school is out of session. There are several programs that aim to feed children during the summer months, but Summer EBT is a demonstration project only in place in a handful of states. Summer EBT is very similar to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, as it provides funds on a benefit card that can be used to purchase food at any retailer that accepts SNAP. Senator Debbie Stabenow is concerned that funds will be shifted away from the current demonstration states (including Michigan, which she represents) to try the program in other states, even though the children receiving the benefits currently still need them. As someone who wrote the Summer EBT Demonstration grant for the state of Virginia, and implemented it, I saw firsthand how beneficial this program was, especially in rural communities where summer feeding sites were too far away. The redemption rates of summer EBT benefits is high so I hope that as part of CNR, lawmakers will consider making Summer EBT a permanent program and will focus on the program’s opportunities within rural areas.
Nutrition Standards for School Meals
Nutrition standards are in flux in the name of flexibility: Although the core nutrition requirements have not changed, three menu planning flexibilities were temporarily established at the end of 2018. These changes loosen some of the nutrition standards, allowing schools to offer flavored, low-fat milk, allowing half of grains to be “whole grain rich” rather than 100% whole grain, and retaining target 1 sodium levels. CNR provides the opportunity to revisit the standards and the newly implemented “flexibilities”. School meal standards must align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans which are updated every five years. Although drastic changes to school meal standards are not expected during this CNR, I do hope that the high grain requirement for breakfast will be reconsidered and to echo the American Academy of Pediatrics, the standards for school nutrition should be based on science.
Community Eligibility Provision (CEP)
Community eligibility is a good thing: The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows school districts in low-income areas to serve meals at no cost to all students without collecting household applications. This reduces burdensome paperwork and ensures that kids who need meals receive them. The GAO found that errors in certification were reduced in schools participating in CEP. Unfortunately, the last CNR bill proposed significantly weakening CEP, which would affect approximately 7,000 schools currently using the program and prohibit an additional 11,000 schools from participating in CEP in the future. Lawmakers should continue to support CEP and provide schools with the resources they need to effectively implement the program as it is beneficial for school nutrition programs and families.
There are so many more programs and elements that will be reviewed as part of CNR. I encourage all of those working in the child nutrition and public health nutrition space to stay engaged as this legislation moves forward and make your support for these programs known. And as for the lawmakers making these decisions, remember the families and children relying on these programs. In the words of Senator Stabenow “We write the law… we have the capacity to change that”.