Feeding Children: The process of reauthorizing child nutrition programs

May 20, 2021
by Max De Faria, 2021 Emerson National Hunger Fellow via the Congressional Hunger Center

In March, Feeding America projected that 13 million children will experience food insecurity in 2021. At this same moment, Congress has the opportunity to reauthorize and modify the nutrition programs that target and address childhood hunger. Child Nutrition Reauthorization (or CNR) is the process through which Congress modifies permanent statues related to child nutrition programs. This process typically includes modification to the following programs:  

CNR also impacts a wide range of smaller programs such as the Farm to School Grant Program. In addition to CNR, child nutrition programs can also be influenced by the farm bill. The 2018 Farm Bill (Public Law 115-334) extended funding for the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables in child nutrition programs as well as required NSLP-participating schools to “Buy American” (domestic)

Typically, the CNR process occurs every five years. However, due to some irreconcilable differences between the House and Senate, Congress has extended CNR since 2015. Programs like NSLP, SBP, SMP, and CACFP are permanently established and appropriated. Despite failure to reauthorize child nutrition programs in 2015, the aforementioned programs have operated regardless. Other CNR programs such as WIC and SFSP depend on annual appropriations; these programs have been funded each fiscal year from 2016 through 2021. 

Thanks in part to the incredible advocacy of RESULTS volunteers, the most recent CNR occurred in 2010 and culminated in the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (Public Law 111-296). The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 included several key provisions with some new policies described within the legislation while others were elucidated in USDA regulations. Through this law, Congress created the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows eligible, participating NSLP/SBP schools to provide free meals to all students. This legislation also updated nutrition standards for school meals and standardized the nutritional requirements for other foods sold during the school day in schools. Moreover, this legislation required states transition their WIC paper-based vouchers to Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) by October 1, 2020.

This year, leaders in the House and Senate expressed a desire to see CNR legislation pass. The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry held their first CNR hearing on March 25, 2021. In that hearing, Chairperson Stabenow (D-MI) and Ranking Member Boozman (R-AR) articulated CNR to be a bipartisan priority. The House Committee on Education and Labor, which has authority over CNR in their chamber, held their first hearing on May 12, 2021. While testimony in the hearing was limited to comments from Deputy Under Secretary Stacy Dean of USDA, the subcommittee reinforced an interest to see CNR reach the finish line.  

President Biden has clearly prioritized child hunger in his newly released American Families Plan. This proposal builds upon previous pandemic responses to advance access to anti-hunger programs. The Administration’s American Families Plan includes:  

  • Expanded eligibility and permanency of the Summer EBT program for all students receiving free or reduced-price school meals during the school year,  
  • Lowered CEP threshold for elementary schools to 25 percent of students participating in SNAP, 
  • Increased auto-enrollment of students receiving Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for free school meals, and  
  • $1 billion for healthy foods in schools, providing additional support and enhanced reimbursements rates for schools meeting higher nutritional standards. 

Through these proposed ideas, President Biden’s plan covers many inequities that advocates highlighted as key issues to be taken up during this round of CNR. The current reauthorization effort could improve and modernize child nutrition programs – for instance, by prioritizing access to summer meals and expanding CEP eligibility – as well as expand benefits and flexibilities beyond those proposed in President Biden’s plan. To address other rampant inequities in these programs, advocates have suggested:  

  • Eliminating unpaid school meal debt, 
  • Expanding WIC to children 6 years old and younger to ensure children have access to food before becoming of school age, 
  • Streamlining the administration of child nutrition programs so more money can be spent on food, and  
  • Offering universal school meals to all students. 

Together, these suggestions not only recognize and account for the impact of COVID-19 on hunger but also invest in equitable responses that meets the needs of our diverse communities. While much remains to be done to reauthorize child nutrition programs, now is the time to ensure every child is fed! 

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