Spurred by the pandemic and the Biden administration’s priorities, a new federal paradigm may be emerging to ensure equitable access to healthy meals.
Spurred by the pandemic and the Biden administration’s priorities, a new federal paradigm may be emerging to ensure equitable access to healthy meals.
June 22, 2021
Over the last 18 months, an alarming rise in child hunger—over 17 million children did not have consistent access to enough food in 2020—caught the attention of many federal lawmakers, prompting them to call for an overdue evaluation of the country’s child nutrition programs.
In March, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry kicked off a process that involves updating a broad collection of child hunger and nutrition programs. Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) is supposed to occur every five years, but Congress hasn’t reviewed it since 2010, when President Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act made historic changes to school meal nutrition standards.
Now six years late, lawmakers and advocates say the COVID-19 pandemic and a racial justice reckoning have created the political will to not only ensure that the country’s young people are fed, but that the programs also address systemic inequalities. The Biden administration is supporting decisive, progressive action.
“Among other things the pandemic revealed about our country was the fact that there is pervasive inequality, especially racial inequity, and then the crucial role that federal programs can play during a national crisis,” said Mamiko Vuillemin, senior manager of policy and advocacy at FoodCorps, an organization that works to improve school meals and food education. “We definitely see school food as a way to address racial injustices and inequalities that we have in this country.”
Many others do, too, and as CNR picks up steam, senators and representatives are introducing marker bills related to nutrition education, farm-to-school initiatives, and programs that provide nutritious food to low-income children before they reach school age, in hopes that they can provide language that can be worked into the CNR.
Last month, Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), along with Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin), introduced legislation that would make school meals free for all students. While providing universally free school meals was once a controversial idea, more than 360 organizations signed on to support the bill, including moderate groups that represent a wide range of interests.
In a statement of support, the American Heart Association noted the rise in child hunger that occurred as a result of the pandemic and that Black and Hispanic households were more food insecure compared to white households. “Every child deserves access to healthy meals, [and] this bill would successfully remove barriers and ensure children are getting the nutrition they need to thrive,” the statement said.
Lawmakers have also introduced marker bills that would expand access to meals when school is not in session, with some provisions directly informed by pandemic relief programs. The Stop Child Hunger Act of 2021, for instance, would make the electronic benefit program P-EBT permanent. And the Healthy Future Students and Earth Pilot Program Act would create a voluntary grant program for school districts to help schools provide students with plant-based entrée options.
“While the pandemic has created a new set of challenges, it has also created opportunities for us to improve children’s lives. Congress gave schools new tools to reach more families in need,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) during the March hearing. “We can apply these lessons and creative thinking to how we reach children during the summer, on weekends, and after school. I look forward to passing a strong bipartisan child nutrition bill that helps our kids get healthier, not hungrier.”
Advocates say the momentum around the CNR updates gives lawmakers the chance to build on the documented successes of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. It may also signal policymakers’ broader shift toward embracing the idea that children’s access to nutritious food is a fundamental responsibility of government.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that there’s been a huge change in the language and the desire to end childhood hunger in this massive way, and the increase in funding is at a scale we haven’t seen probably in 50 years,” said Noreen Springstead, the executive director of WhyHunger, an organization that works to end hunger.
Almost immediately after taking office, President Biden began throwing political and physical capital at reducing child hunger. He issued an executive order that called for increases in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, increases in benefits for children missing school meals due to COVID-19, and a reevaluation of the framework used to determine the amount of monthly SNAP benefits that are needed to support a healthy diet.
When Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, it provided $12 billion to implement those changes. More recently, Biden’s American Families Plan proposed making summer meal benefits permanent. While the administration has not supported calls for universal free school meals, unlike the group of Democrats behind the Universal School Meals Program Act, it has proposed a less comprehensive plan that would extend free meals to more low-income schools using an initiative called the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).
But the focus is not on hunger alone. In March, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack repeatedly emphasized that his U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) would focus on what he called “nutrition security,” a nexus at which hunger and nutrition intersect, and that children were his first concern.
The USDA’s efforts include expanding and updating the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), since many eligible mothers and children currently do not participate. The agency’s attention to WIC is bolstering the case for lawmakers to also include the WIC Act, which would further expand the program’s reach, in CNR.
By putting nutrition front and center alongside equity, Biden’s USDA is building on efforts by Michelle Obama. After the former First Lady worked with advocacy groups and congressional leaders to pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, new nutrition standards—including requirements for a higher percentage of whole grains, reduced sodium, and more fresh fruits and vegetables—were implemented in 2012.
Since then, some of the standards have been rolled back while others are still being phased in, but research shows that overall, schools have succeeded at delivering more nutritious meals to more students. A recent special issue of the journal Nutrients featured 15 papers that used data from a comprehensive USDA study on 1,200 schools. Researchers found that the nutritional quality of lunches had improved by 41 percent, while breakfasts improved by 44 percent. “Kids are eating healthier. Significantly healthier,” said Mary Story, the associate director for academic programs at the Duke Global Health Institute. “And when you look at the importance of equity, this benefits all kids in the U.S.”
Early on, the School Nutrition Association reported an “increase in plate waste”—or the amount of food that kids throw in the garbage—due to the changes. But data from the recent studies showed that the vast majority of schools were meeting the standards, while plate waste had decreased. Another recent study from Harvard found that the standards resulted in lower obesity rates specifically among low-income children.
“In the last CNR, it was all about trying to help people see there was evidence to suggest that we should improve the nutrition standards,” said Lindsey Miller, a research analyst at the Duke Global Health Institute and Healthy Eating Research who worked on the special Nutrients issue. Now, going into the CNR process, advocates are armed with scientific evidence that supports the reforms. “Because that was really achieved . . . this time it’s, ‘Let’s maintain and defend those nutrition standards to prevent them from being rolled back further.’”
Some of the Trump administration’s rollbacks—such as halving the whole-grains requirement—have already been struck down in court. While Biden’s USDA has not explicitly addressed individual rollbacks, Deputy Undersecretary Stacy Dean emphasized the original standards’ successes during a recent House Education and Labor Committee hearing dedicated to child hunger. Dean also said the USDA is initiating the process of updating school meal nutrition standards based on the new Dietary Guidelines released last year.
So far, no lawmakers have introduced marker bills for inclusion in CNR that would significantly change the nutrition standards. During both committee hearings, however, Democrats praised the success of the standards and primarily asked questions about expanding access, while Republicans repeatedly brought up ways in which they thought the standards were too restrictive. Representative Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho) said that he heard from school meal professionals in his district that the standards were overly complicated and that children would not eat the meals if some of the requirements still being phased in were finalized.
“The final sodium requirements are unworkable given the other requirements they must meet when serving meals,” he said. “One cannot cram idealism into school lunch programs and pretend the problem’s solved.”
Nutrition education and farm-to-table programs are two realms within CNR negotiations that have more bipartisan agreement.
In April, Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) reintroduced the Food and Nutrition Education in Schools Act, which would allocate more federal funding for food and nutrition education, modeled on FoodCorps’ programs, in rural, urban, and Indigenous schools. “We want to be taking steps towards food education being integrated as part of the school day for every child across the nation,” said Vuillemin of FoodCorps. “These activities give students the opportunity to try different foods and explore connections between their classrooms, cafeterias, and school gardens and increase children’s acceptance and enjoyment of nourishing, tasty meals, setting them up to make healthy choices for life.”
On the same day, Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) reintroduced the bicameral Kids Eat Local Act, a marker bill that would help schools source more food from local farms. Republicans in both the House and Senate co-sponsored the bill.
It’s all part of the same big picture, says Hunger Free Vermont Director Anore Horton, who has for years advocated for policies that support “farm-fresh school meals for all” at both the federal and state level. “If you’ve got schools that are buying local food and making amazing school meals with that local food, but you don’t have universal meals, then you’re actually excluding students from . . . learning where their food comes from and trying those new things in their school meals,” she said.
In Vermont, the state senate recently passed a bill that would provide free school breakfast to all students and create a task force to move the state toward universal school meals, including lunch, by 2026. California and Massachusetts have also introduced similar state-level legislation. Those efforts inform what happens in Washington, D.C., and vice versa, shifting larger policy and cultural conversations around hunger, nutrition, and equity.
“There’s been a lot of work over many years laying the groundwork . . . but the pandemic made a huge difference in this, because it turns out that it’s possible for the federal government to find the money to pay for universal breakfast and lunch at all public schools,” Horton said. “They’re doing it. They did it last year and they’re going to do it for another year. So suddenly, the realm of the possible got dramatically expanded.”
In addition to demonstrating government’s capabilities, COVID-19 disproportionately impacted communities of color and intersected with racial justice protests in response to George Floyd’s murder, pushing these issues to the forefront. In an online survey examining the impacts of COVID-19 on hunger relief organizations, WhyHunger and the Duke Sanford World Food Policy Center found that more than half of the respondents said they adjusted programming to address racial inequities.
“There’s a shift in understanding and thinking that the systems and structures in our country are not working equally for everyone,” said Springstead of WhyHunger. “We were always that provocateur in the anti-hunger space, but now the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) is talking about it, Feeding America is talking about it, Share Our Strength is talking about it.”
But Springstead wants to move the conversation one step further, from understanding the systemic ways in which hunger, inequality, and nutrition intersect, to addressing the root causes of child hunger. “Is this a radical rethinking of our national anti-hunger approach? Probably not, because these tools have been in the toolbox for a long time. They’re just getting better resourced,” she said. “My big question that we all need to ponder as Americans is, ‘What do we need to create a baseline standard for what it means to live a dignified American life?’”
For example, the WhyHunger/Duke survey found modest increases in the number of hunger relief organizations that said they were shifting to work on advocacy campaigns around issues like fair wages. And Biden’s Jobs and Families plans will invest in poverty-reducing strategies such as expanding the child tax credit and childcare subsidies. Springstead would like to see the administration eliminate tax breaks for companies that fail to pay living wages, resulting in their employees depending on federal (and charitable) food programs.
There is some evidence that that kind of thinking may gain traction in the future, so policy conversations about child hunger will extend far beyond CNR negotiations. During the education hearing, when Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) asked the USDA’s Dean how much more money would be needed to truly end child hunger, she shifted to pointing out why food insecurity still exists in the U.S.
“I do think that a big part of it is not just . . . food assistance. Families need good-paying jobs, they need access to health coverage so that they’re not choosing between paying medical bills and feeding their kids, and they need affordable, safe places to live,” she said. “The Families Plan, Jobs Plan, and Rescue Plan together are trying to deal with the conditions that cause people to be hungry, and I think that’s a better way.”
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