What’s In The Child Nutrition Bill For Hungry Kids?

We all know by now–or certainly should–that far too many children in this wealthy country simply don’t get enough to eat

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2008-9 food security report, 1.1 million children were living in households where they and/or their siblings sometimes had a  skimpy meal or no meal at all because their parents couldn’t afford to buy enough food.

The Senate Agriculture Committee’s bill to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act seeks to reduce child hunger. It goes at this through various measures to expand access to subsidized meal programs.

For school meal programs, the bill would simplify the process that allows schools in high-poverty areas to offer free meals to all students. These areas, the Committee report says, enroll more than 5 million children–over 10% of the public school population. The current, burdensome process may deter some schools from claiming “community eligibility.” So low-income children may be left out because their parents don’t know free meals are available or are overwhelmed by the paperwork.

The bill would also make foster children automatically eligible for free meals and do a couple of things to promote “direct certification” for other low-income children. At this point, schools must certify free-meal eligibility for children whose parents receive food stamps. They may also directly certify children whose families participate in TANF or the program that distributes food on Indian reservations. The bill would provide bonuses to school districts that adopt these options.

It would also allow school districts to directly certify children covered by Medicaid, but only selectively. In the 2012-13 school year, USDA would designate districts representing 2.5% of children eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Additional districts would be added annually, at the same rate, up to a total of 10% of low-income children. The rationale for this cap is not explained.

The bill does more than increase access to in-school meals. It would allow eligible after-school programs in all states to receive reimbursements for a full meal, rather than only a snack. At this point, programs in only 13 states and the District of Columbia can get reimbursed for a full meal. The expansion would go a long way toward ensuring that low-income children get three well-balanced meals a day–at least, during days when school is in session.

So far as I can see, summer meals get short shrift. Participation in them is egregiously low, compared to participation in school lunch programs. Indeed, the Food Research and Action Center reports that only 17.3% of the children who ate free or reduced-price school lunches during the 2007-8 school year then participated in a summer meal program. And not all programs operated all summer long.

To expand access, the bill would require school food administrators to help nonprofits that operate summer meals programs with outreach to families. Period.

But, of course, changing the standards that now restrict reimbursements for summer meals to programs in high-poverty communities would increase the federal government’s costs. So would funding transportation in rural areas, where needy children may live far from summer meal sites.

And then, as with in-school meals, there’s the issue of reimbursement rates. Somewhat higher than rates for school breakfasts and lunches. But, as FRAC reports, a USDA survey found that 73% of sponsors expected to lose money operating their summer meal programs. This may partially explain why the number of meals served last August was substantially lower than the number served in June and July.

As I wrote last week, the Senate Agriculture Committee’s bill would provide $4.5 billion over 10 years for all the programs included in the Child Nutrition Act. The Committee Chair’s framework indicates that $1.2 billion of the total would be for “a path to end child hunger.” Not to eliminate it, as President Obama promised. But to take us down the road apiece.

Is this really the best we can do?

NOTE: I apparently skipped over a section of the bill. It would actually do more to expand access to summer meal programs than require school food administrators to help with outreach. It would also authorize $20 million in competitive grants for “activities that improve and encourage sponsor retention.” This translates into about $5 million a year for Fiscal Years 2011-15. This doesn’t alter my view that the bill fails to address the significant barriers to access.

One Response to What’s In The Child Nutrition Bill For Hungry Kids?

  1. […] the Child Nutrition Act. As I earlier wrote, it will do some very good, if limited things to reduce child hunger and improve child health — the latter mainly by paving the way for more balanced food […]

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