As childhood hunger rates climb, school nutrition legislation remains for lame duck Congress

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\"AThe data is alarming.

Last month, the US Census Bureau reported that the nation\’s poverty rate jumped to 14.3% in 2009, its highest level since 1994. The 43.6 million Americans living under the poverty threshold is the highest number in 51 years of record-keeping.

The jump, reported as part of a regular Census Bureau report on income, poverty and health insurance, was not unexpected. As we all know, the U.S. economy went through a very rough 2009.

Perhaps even more distressing are the numbers related to children:

  • 1 in 6 children in the US are impacted by hunger and nutrition.
  • Nearly 17 million children are food insecure, meaning they don’t know where their next meal will come from.

Inadequate nutrition has numerous adverse and potentially long-term affects on the physical health, behavior, mental health, development, school readiness and achievement of children.

Fortunately, there are federal nutrition assistance programs available to help low income families meet the nutritional needs of their children and protect them from the consequences of malnutrition and under-nutrition.

Economists and social scientists alike point to the positive return on investment in early childhood nutrition programs; without which, the social, moral and fiscal costs of a generation of unhealthy and underachieving students are likely to be exponentially higher in the long run.

But unfortunately, not more than a handful of days after the sobering Census report was released, the US Congress adjourned without passing Child Nutrition Reauthorization legislation.

The School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program are permanently authorized. However, all other child nutrition programs that affect school nutrition must be reauthorized every five years. The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), State Administrative Expenses (SAE), the Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and other smaller pieces of the complete package of child nutrition programs must be renewed because they have actual expiration dates.

The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 expired on September 30, 2009 but was extended until September 30, 2010 – the day Congress adjourned.

While the current stalled version of the bill does not include adequate funding to fundamentally transform school food, it does have the potential to bring significant benefits for children’s health for the foreseeable future by putting health-promoting policies in place now. It includes many policies that address the dual challenges of obesity and hunger faced by far too many children across the U.S., as well as modest increases in the reimbursements schools receive for the meals they provide.

Many child nutrition and anti-hunger advocates view the current  bill as acceptable considering the budget shortfall and speculation that there\’s not much appetite for a big increase in spending for social programs these days.  However, at least as many influential advocates, both  inside and outside of Congress, continue to resist – holding out hope for a stronger bill.

The bill will certainly be back on the table for debate when the lame duck session begins November 15.

Meanwhile, the US Department of Agriculture continues to develop updated nutrition standards for school meals. Those revised standards are expected to require larger servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The Institute of Medicine\’s recommendations for these standards acknowledge the need to increase funding for school meal programs to help meet the nutrition targets.

Once overhead costs are factored in, most public schools have about $1 per meal to spend. As anyone who has ever been to the grocery store knows, the cheapest food isn’t the healthiest. Soggy tater tots and greasy pizza continue to be a staple in most lunch rooms.

School nutrition professionals across the country are working miracles every day, stretching limited funds to assemble meals that fuel our children\’s school days; but in the face of rising food costs and evolving nutrition standards, school nutrition programs need additional support.

Since the act is only reauthorized every five years, this is an important opportunity to shape the future of school food, particularly in light of First Lady Michelle Obama’s call to end childhood obesity in a generation.

Whether the divide over the bill continues or a resolution is reached come November very much remains to be seen.

What seems clear to me is that we can no longer afford to voice our concerns about rising rates of childhood obesity and the need to promote healthier lifestyles at school without investing in the programs that reach children in their school cafeterias each day.

It is imperative that Congress and the Administration work together to pass a strong bill – ideally one that adequately funds improved nutrition in cafeterias across the country for all children; at the very least one that continues to provide a safety net for our poorest children, many of whom  rely on schools for most of their meals each day.

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