Child Nutrition Programs Feed Children, Sustains Communities

Nick Wood, U.S. Poverty Policy Volunteer
April 22, 2016

When we know that children are not getting enough to eat and that they need nutrition assistance, why would we want to make it more difficult for them to get access to food? In the long run, denying children access to nutrition programs does not save us money, in fact, the costs associated to hunger are staggering because they are compounded via overt health effects and the more hidden costs associated to loss of productivity and general discontent instead of hope for the future. The Bread for the World Institute cites research which estimates that up to $160 billion just in increased annual healthcare expenditures.

Active RESULTS volunteer advocates know that the structure of food assistance programs, like SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) and the child nutrition programs, matters and can make our communities more resilient by providing targeted assistance right where it is most needed. For example, because of the way SNAP is administered, support goes to communities that are hardest hit by economic downturn. In the event of disasters, you see this in both urban and rural areas when nutrition assistance is used to sustain them until they recover – which is why RESULTS is concerned about efforts to dismantle SNAP’s very effective structure.

Nutrition assistance for infants, young children, and children in schools benefits entire families and communities because there is more money available within households to pay for other necessary goods and services. Our economy as a whole benefits because investment in these areas reduces the impact of chronic poverty and helps more people to be able to compete in the job market. It has been understood for a long time that making it easier for families to feed their children is simply the best and most direct way to address the cycle of poverty.

Congress has the opportunity to protect and bolster Child Nutrition programs to close the gaps and ensure that all children have year-round access to nutritious meals during Child Nutrition Reauthorization. Many federal programs for child nutrition are currently authorized under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.  The reauthorization includes the following programs:

  • School Breakfast Program   
  • National School Lunch Program
  • Child and Adult Care Food Program
  • Summer Food Service Program
  • Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program
  • WIC

In January, the Senate Agriculture Committee unanimously approved the bipartisan Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016, which reauthorizes child nutrition programs for another five years. The bill now heads to the Senate floor; a vote for the bill has not been scheduled. Meanwhile, House Republicans released a Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill on April 20, with committee markup expected in the coming weeks. Anti-hunger advocates are very concerned about the proposed House bill and are working with Hill staff to strengthen the legislation.

Women, Infants and Children Program – A Wise Public Health Investment

Most people would also understand how investing in nutrition for babies is not only the right thing to do, but has long term benefits for our communities. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides Federal grants to States for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant women as well as infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk. 8.4 million individuals a year are served by WIC. Not only does WIC provide direct nutrition assistance, it engages families with young children in creating healthy habits. To avoid the problems associated to poor nutrition in later life, it is critical to start early.

Right now, WIC assistance ends at a pretty crucial point in a child’s life. When kids turn five, there is an assumption that they will start school and stop needing the program. This does not account for children who have not yet started kindergarten or when parents may be advised to delay kindergarten enrollment. The transition from WIC to school should not result in children to falling through a nutrition crack because of barriers to school meals. Continuing WIC nutrition services for children up to age six as needed, assures that all children continue to get critical nutrition through until they enter school.

In part based on the recommendations of the Witnesses to Hunger (which RESULTS included in our 2015 Child Nutrition requests), the Senate bill includes language to amend the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 and title XIX of the Social Security Act, which is Medicaid, to raise the age limit for children participating in WIC to be increased from five to six if the child is at risk of falling through the nutrition crack. There are a number of improvements to WIC that would be cost-effective, sound investments in our communities -- and many ways the proposed House legislation falls short, including not expanding WIC to 6 -- which you can read about at the National WIC Association’s site.

Community Eligibility is Critical

Quality education is central to equity of opportunity, and opportunity is what areas of high poverty need if they are ever going to see serious improvement. We know that when children are in school for several hours through the day, they need meals and snacks to help with focus and attention and not have to sit through their day with grumbling stomachs. School meal programs are associated with fewer absences, higher test scores, and even higher graduation rates.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 included an important provision, which allowed schools to administer free breakfast and lunch programs in a very common sense way to make sure kids get access to nutritious food. It is called Community Eligibility and it is the best way to make sure we are really doing what we can to help areas of high poverty keep kids healthy and ready to learn. Provisions that allow for Community Eligibility were developed in order to try to increase participation in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) or the School Breakfast Program (SBP) among children who are eligible. One big reason participation was not higher was the administrative costs and investment of time for school districts to go through the application process for every individual.

The application process for school lunches and breakfasts can be as a major barrier to access and it is expensive. Community Eligibility allows schools with at least 40 percent of students already identified as eligible because they can be ‘data matched’ without the need for an extra application (these are children from families who are already identified based on eligibility for other programs), to avoid the redundancy of the individual application process and the costs associated to it. You can check for eligible schools in your area on the searchable database developed by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). Since it has been implemented the number of schools using the Community Eligibility provision has increased by more than 4,000 schools from the 2014–2015 school year to the 2015–2016 school year.

RESULTS will continue to monitor the threats to Child Nutrition programs, along with the opportunity to expand access to nutrition assistance. In addition, it is critical on a broader level that we keep on raising our voices in the media about the importance of SNAP, especially given the additional threats that SNAP and other anti-poverty programs face in the coming months and years.