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Nutrition Workout :: Congress May Leave Child Nutrition Programs Behind

A slate of child nutrition programs -- including in-school breakfast and lunch, summer meals, and a supplemental nutrition program for impoverished women and children -- is at risk as Congress comes back in session next week.
Lawmakers have only 10 days in September for an extended debate on the Iran nuclear deal and must find a way to fund the government by Sept. 30. But they also must reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act (also known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act), which provides more than 20 million free or reduced-price lunches and more than 11 million free or reduced-price breakfasts for students each day. That's more than 5 billion meals each school year.
If they don't, millions of children stand to lose access to meals during the summer months when schools are not in session.
Originally passed in 1966, the act would now provide meals to a record number of children. Those in families with incomes below 130 percent of the federal poverty rate qualify for free lunch (the reduced-lunch threshold is 185 percent the poverty rate), and while child poverty has declined slightly since 2010, nearly 16 million children live in food-insecure homes.
In 2010, Congress introduced new nutrition standards that are now in effect in 95 percent of schools in the U.S., according to an August report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, speaking at the Center for American Progress in Washington Tuesday, said reauthorizing the nutritional programs has a direct and significant impact not just on children, but on the country in general.
“The bottom line is, as a country, if we want to be successful economically, if we want to reduce health care costs and we want to ensure our national security, then we also have to see child nutrition in the way we see so many issues involving national security and economic security and health care security,” he said. “It’s a critically important part.”
Reauthorizing the nutrition programs isn't controversial. While the agriculture appropriations bills that fund them were cut back -- affecting the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- funding for school meals was actually increased.
The problem is the timing: High-stakes, controversial issues threaten to overshadow the popular, bipartisan program, which is scheduled to be marked up on Sept. 17. ​
Most of the core programs -- including in-school meals and WIC -- would keep going even if the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act isn't immediately reauthorized. But smaller programs -- like milk reimbursements to schools that don’t participate in federal meal service, and the farm-to-school program, which brings local food into schools -- would lapse without reauthorization.
“The biggest issue that continues to emerge in the divided Congress, with more funding needed to carry out the highest priorities, nutrition standards, the farm-to-school program, summer meals program, is all this stuff costs money,” says Claire Benjamin, executive director of Food Policy Action, a nonprofit co-founded by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio to raise awareness of legislative issues around food policy.​
“The challenge that emerges is how to pay for it,” she says.​​
“It’s mostly going to be a bandwidth issue and a timing issue for Congress,” says Lucy Melcher, the associate director for advocacy of No Kid Hungry, which is focusing its efforts on expanding summer meals programs. “This is really about keeping the momentum up, making sure members understand this is a priority for people in their districts.”
If lawmakers are unable to reauthorize the legislation by the end of September, they may be able to extend it.​
“It’s very feasible that a clean continuation of the programs could be rolled into an omnibus” government funding bill, says Claire Benjamin, executive director of Food Policy Action, a nonprofit co-founded by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio to raise awareness of legislative issues around food policy. “That’s not the worst case scenario.”​
​​ Doing so, however, could prevent Congress from implementing a much-needed expansion of the summer meals program, leaving more kids at risk for hunger and poor nutrition less than a year from now. ​
Just one in six kids who receive free or reduced meals during the school year also receives meals during the summer, either because they are unaware that program is available or they are unable to travel to where the meals are being served.
“Some youngsters receive a third or half of the calories they take in during the year at school meals,” Vilsack said Tuesday. That resource isn't as readily available to them when schools aren't in session.
Vilsack said USDA is considering ways to ease the burden on families during the summer, either by increasing the number of partner distributors or making the meal sites mobile, so kids who lack reliable transportation can still have access to food
A delay in reauthorization could prevent those changes from being implemented in time for next summer, or even the summers after that. And if Congress opts to simply pass an extension at current levels, those necessary changes could be delayed as long as five years, the next time the act would be scheduled for reauthorization.
“There’s a real sense of alignment from communities on the ground that letting this opportunity pass us by would mean at least five more summers of kids going hungry,” says Melcher.​
While​ the programs have bipartisan support now, 2010's new nutritional standards were initially opposed by conservatives wary that they would interfere with parental decision-makings and put cumbersome restrictions on schools and food suppliers. And though those concerns subsided with implementation, advocates fear the partisan battles of September could spill over into reauthorization efforts and resurrect old disagreements.
"These issues became incredibly partisan ... It pitted unlikely people against each other," Benjamin says. "These conversations have subsided a bit, but September could change everything."
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