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.
An Emphasis on Nutrition
“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.