The Child Nutrition Bill: A Litmus Test for Future Food Policy



When the House returns to work this week they will likely be considering the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, twice extended as legislators struggled over the details. According to The Hill 80 percent of Americans support expansion of the act to “provide healthier food and cover more kids.” Yet in the current climate of economic crisis, finding the funding for this expansion has been a nearly insurmountable challenge. If this bill is not passed within the current lame-duck session, the new session of Congress will have to start over, perhaps with a diminished commitment to its expansion. In fact, there is reason to believe that there will be no work done the week after Thanksgiving, which means this week is make-or-break week for the bill.

This iteration of the child nutrition bill has received the greatest amount of support and publicity in its history. The good food movement has gathered more and more advocates, both citizens and professionals, and the public has become more aware of the importance of nutrition programs for children. The bill even enjoys rare bipartisan support. Yet conflict over compromises has been simmering under the radar, splitting would-be allies on the path to reform.

The bill currently on the table, sponsored by outgoing Senator Blanche Lincoln, funds its new, groundbreaking nutrition and hunger programs partly by cutting $2.2 billion in future SNAP (food stamp) funding. It was passed unanimously. The bill authored by the House did not cut SNAP funding; but neither did it find adequate funding. Instead the bill stalled, the August recess came and went, and only half of the $2 billion increase was funded.

Up until this point, a highly organized network of national hunger and nutrition advocacy organizations had been in alignment in accepting the passage of a child nutrition bill only if it left SNAP funding intact. But with the House bill crashing, the path to restoring SNAP cuts obstructed, and the expiration of the Child Nutrition Act looming, these groups began to split over the issue of the SNAP cuts.

Groups focused more on access and the needs of low-income individuals opposed the bill because of the negative impact SNAP cuts would have on poor children. SNAP had just been raided in order to pass teachers’ salaries, and hunger organizations were outraged to see those funds raided again. Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) has lamented the use of “the most important anti-hunger program in America as a piggy bank for other purposes.” According to Kristen Mancinelli, Senior Manager, Policy and Government Relations for City Harvest, an organization that collects food for the hungry, “for every dollar spent by the federal government in SNAP the public sees $1.83 spent in economic activity.”

“Half of SNAP funding goes to children, and the other half goes to adults and seniors in need,” explained Joel Berg, Executive Director at New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “At a time when we are lavishing billionaires with hundreds of billions of dollars worth of extra tax cuts, the idea of paying for modest improvements with school lunches with SNAP cuts–paying for kids’ lunches by taking away dinners from them, their parents, and their grandparents–is both immoral and counter-productive. If such cuts are enacted, they will boost both hunger and obesity.”

Organizations more focused on nutrition, on the other hand, worry that opposing the bill until SNAP cuts are restored jeopardizes the entire bill–and its many valuable initiatives, like giving the USDA authority over competitive foods sold in schools (foods not part of the school food program, e.g. those sold on the premises in vending machines), updating nutritional standards, and expansion of after-school supper programs.

Sophie Milam, Senior Policy Counsel at Feeding America, emphasized that her organization does not like the SNAP cuts, either. But they are concerned that if the current bill is not passed, the next Congress will delay work on a new bill, and that bill will likely not make the same investments and improvements as the current one does.

The White House has stated its commitment to restore SNAP funding, a promise that motivated two former opponents to the bill, Representatives Rosa DeLauro and Jim McGovern, to support it. Hunger organizations Bread for the World and Share Our Strength have also dropped their opposition, according to the Washington Post. This is a measure of how much the White House wants this bill passed–and it begs the question of how much support food groups could have gotten if they had all dug in their heels and remained united in their opposition to a bill that cuts SNAP funding.

“It’s a very tough decision. These are things that many, many people here are struggling with, people who have been working on this bill for the past couple of years. You have to make a decision about what’s going to be a long-term investment,” continues Milam. “You have to live to fight another day, try to secure the best you can for these programs. At what point do you say ‘this is the best we can get right now?’”

While hunger and nutrition groups have split on the national levels, a smaller coalition, NYC Alliance for Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR), has remained united. Through City Harvest, Kristen Mancinelli has led this group (full disclosure, I work for Brooklyn Food Coalition, which has signed on to the Alliance), which maintains its opposition to the bill until SNAP funds are restored. Even groups tied to national organizations that have chosen different sides have remained in alignment with NYC for CNR’s position, something that has surprised even Mancinelli. This is partly because New Yorkers have more to lose with the SNAP cuts: 1.7 million people in the city are on food stamps.

In practice, the organizing around CNR could be seen as a warm up for the even more massive organizing food groups will be doing to advocate for real change in the Farm Bill. A more conservative House promises a different and more challenging climate for that work.

As told by the documentary Lunch Line, the story of school food is one of compromise and unlikely alliances. Looking ahead to the Farm Bill, I see urban sustainable food advocates joining forces with Christian fundamentalist libertarian renegade farmers like Joel Salatin. Can we look ahead and predict where the fault lines will lie? Is there groundwork we can build? How do we balance idealism and bold thinking with pragmatism? After the child nutrition debate has finished, work on the Farm Bill will no doubt accelerate locally and nationally. I’m hoping we will ask ourselves some of these questions and be open to productive alliances with each other. I’m hoping we will have the wisdom to know when to be flexible and when to be ambitious.

In the meantime, if you care about school food and child nutrition there is still time to lend your support for the bill. See the below links to read more about these organizations’ respective positions and to send a message to our legislators about the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

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View Comments (5)

  1. Monday, November 15th, 2010
    Excellent recap and update. I've reposted on The Lunch Tray: http://bit.ly/db6072
  2. s19
    Monday, November 15th, 2010
    I disagree with your characterization that support from McGovern and DeLauro and groups like Feeding America and Bread is a sign of how much the White House wants this bill. It's a sign of how much they want this bill -- coupled with a honest acknowledgement that this is the best we can do for hungry families in this budget and political climate.

    As for how much support food groups could have gotten if they had all dug in their heels and remained united in their opposition to a bill that cuts SNAP funding, I think you overestimate how much people care about hunger. Some people care very, very much. But for most, this isn't a top issue. If it were, we wouldn't find ourselves in this position to begin with.

    Sadly, the hunger lobby overestimates its strength. Those readers who have a genuine interest in and commitment to this issue ought to ask themselves the tough question, am I doing everything I can on this issue? Am I as active as I could be? Food groups need to ask themselves the same thing. Going into next Congress, we're going to need to bring our A game.
  3. Adriana
    Wednesday, November 17th, 2010
    GAH! Looks like they're pushing it another week after all. See Atlantic's coverage of yesterday's conference call:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/food/archive/2010/11/inside-the-last-minute-fight-to-pass-the-child-nutrition-act/66666/