The Senate Agriculture Committee passed a new version of the Child Nutrition Act last week. Some positive changes. Some not so hot. But the good far outweighs the not-so, I think.
Basically, the bill would do more to help ensure that low-income children have enough nutritious food to eat when they’re not in school — because they’re too young, because school has let out for the day and or because it’s summertime.
The bill could have gone further, but it paves the way for stronger measures in the next CNA — or perhaps even sooner. And happily, it doesn’t go further to water down the nutritious standards for meals children get when they are in school.
The bill has many parts. And even just those I’ve highlighted have parts. So I’m going to deal here with only the first two and the compromise that barely compromises the nutrition standards. Summer meals to follow soon.
WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance for Women, Infants and Children) has long provided, as its name suggests, a cash-equivalent income supplement that enables pregnant women and mothers of young children to buy foods and beverages that they and their kids might otherwise not get enough of.
The benefit has thus far supplemented the diets of children until they’re five years old. By the time they’re six, they’ll be in elementary school and thus eligible for free or reduced-price lunches — and most of them for breakfasts too.
But, as you see, there’s often a gap. The Senate Ag Committee’s bill would close it by extending eligibility for WIC to age six, except for children in full-day kindergarten programs — and thus presumably fed at no or little cost to their parents.
Children in Childcare Programs
Now, some of those preschoolers spend most of their days — and perhaps part of their evenings — in a childcare center or home-based childcare program. Likewise older children whose parents work late shifts and/or weekends.
Trouble is kids get hungry. And young kids tend to get hungry often because they don’t eat all that much at any one time.
Yet the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which subsidizes meals and snacks served by some of those centers and home-based programs, has reimbursed for no more than two meals and a snack per day.
The Senate Ag Committee’s bill would allow reimbursements for two snacks, as well as two meals for children in programs for at least nine hours a day and no older than twelve.
And residential childcare programs would get reimbursed for three meals a day. These, as you’d guess, are live-in programs, generally for children who’ve been taken away from their parents.
At this point, their reimbursements come only from the program that reimburses regular public and private nonprofit schools for breakfasts and lunches. The Senate Ag Committee bill would enable them to also participate in CACFP — hence, the third meal.
Ideally, CACFP would reimburse all eligible childcare programs for three full meals, as it did before Congress cut its budget during the Reagan administration. Still, a step in the right direction.
Children During the School Day
The CNA authorizes the U.S. Department of Agriculture to at least partially reimburse public and private nonprofit elementary and secondary schools for the meals they serve. They in turn must serve meals that meet USDA’s nutrition standards.
The current CNA directed the agency to update the standards. And so it did, relying largely on recommendations from experts at the Institute of Medicine.
As I’ve mentioned before, the School Nutrition Association raised a big fuss over some of the new requirements. Soaring costs, heavier administrative burdens, losses because kids didn’t buy the meals any more, waste because those that did tossed the fruits and vegetables.
The Association sought more “flexibility,” including a rollback to the standards that required only half the pasta, bread and other “grain-rich” foods to be whole grain, rather than all. It also wanted an indefinite pause in the schedule for reducing sodium content.
The Senate Ag Committee bill grants neither. Nor does it heed the Association’s seemingly reasonable request for increased reimbursement rates to cover the costs of serving more nutritious meals.
The bill would instead allow schools a 20% exemption from the whole grain requirement. And schools would get an extra two years to meet their next sodium reduction target. A study would then determine whether the third and final target should kick in.
No reimbursement rate increase whatever. But another compromise could enable schools to gain more revenue from the foods they sell in so-called a la carte lines, where kids can pick and choose. Not a sure thing, but a working group to assess the current restrictions.
The Association seems relatively content with the compromises. We, I think, should view them as an okay deal too. The Ag Committee could, after all, have folded in a bill, sponsored by two of its members, that gave the Association exactly the grains and sodium changes it wanted.
About 30.5 million children eat lunches subject to the nutrition standards. More than 72% of them live in poor or near-poor families — those whose incomes make serving enough healthful foods unusually challenging.
What the kids eat at school can help ensure that their diets overall supply the nutrients they need. And both research and practical experience suggest they learn to like those fruits, veggies, whole wheat rolls, etc.
Good not only for their bodies, but for their abilities to learn during classroom time. Perhaps the rest of the time and beyond school years too.
NOTE: I’m indebted to the Food Research and Action Center for its overview of the bill. Opinions and any errors are my own.