Granite State Rumblings: Childhood Hunger

Did you know…87,494 New Hampshire children participated in the National School Lunch Program in February 2016. And 21,780 participated in the School Breakfast Program.

98,304 Maine children participated in the National School Lunch Program in February 2016. And 48,922 participated in the School Breakfast Program.

There’s something cooking on Capitol Hill and it doesn’t smell so good to hungry kids.

On May 18th the House Education and the Workforce Committee marked up and voted out of committee a revised version of their child nutrition reauthorization bill, the “Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016.”  This bill has some very concerning provisions in it that would have detrimental effects on children of all ages across the country.

As Robert Greenstein, President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, points out, “Over the last four decades, most child nutrition reauthorization packages have improved the nation’s child nutrition programs and been enacted on a bipartisan basis.  Republicans and Democrats have worked to improve school breakfast and lunches, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and other federal nutrition programs for low-income children.  The work has included improving the healthfulness of the foods offered to children, increasing access to the programs, and improving their efficiency and effectiveness.”

This bill does not honor that tradition.

We all know that nutritious meals and snacks and healthy eating patterns in childhood and adolescence promote optimal childhood health, growth, and intellectual development; prevent immediate health problems, such as iron deficiency anemia, obesity, eating disorders, and dental caries; and may prevent long-term health problems, such as coronary heart disease, cancer, and stroke.

Yet, 8 years after the onset of the financial and economic crisis, hunger remains high in the United States and too many low-income families struggle to put enough food on the table. In 2014: 48.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 32.8 million adults and 15.3 million children. 14 percent of households (17.4 million households) were food insecure, defined as “limited or uncertain access to enough nutrition food.”  Rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average for households with incomes near or below the Federal poverty line, households with children headed by single women or single men, and Black and Hispanic households.

So what has the House Education and the Workforce Committee proposed in this bill? Here is a look at the most concerning provisions of the bill from the center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

The bill would:

  • Convert the school meals programs in three states to a block grant under which these states would receive a capped amount of funding, instead of federal reimbursement for meals served in the school breakfast and lunch programs.  States would have to guarantee only one “affordable” meal a day for students, would be free to set eligibility rules more restrictive than those used today, and could alter the programs’ nutrition standards.  If the fixed amount of federal money for the year ran out — as could occur if poverty increased in a state due to a recession, plant closings, or other developments — there would be no guarantee that poor children would continue receiving free school meals.  Moreover, states could divert resources they now spend on school meals to other purposes as long as state politicians ruled that would meet school-aged children’s nutritional needs.  While, as noted, the proposed block grant would operate only in three states, it’s likely intended to be a foot in the door.  In 1995, House Republicans passed legislation to convert the school meals programs to block grants in all states.
  • Substantially restrict schools’ eligibility for “community eligibility,” an option that allows high-poverty schools to provide school meals at no charge to all students.  If this proposal became law, more than 7,000 schools now using community eligibility to simplify their meal programs and improve access for low-income students could have to reinstate paper applications and return to monitoring eligibility in the lunch line. These schools serve nearly 3.4 million students.  In addition, 11,600 other schools in low-income areas that qualify for community eligibility but haven’t yet adopted it would lose their eligibility.  The result would be fewer children served and higher administrative costs for the affected schools.
  • Alter the process by which school districts verify eligibility for a sample of children who have been approved for free or reduced-price school meals.  Improvements to the verification process are needed, but the proposal in the reauthorization bill the Senate Agriculture Committee approved takes a better approach.  The Rokita bill would result in more administrative burden on schools, likely for little gain in improving verification systems.  The bill also would put more vulnerable families at risk of losing free or reduced-price school meals for their eligible children.
  • Represent a setback to WIC, one of the government’s most cost-effective programs.  For decades, WIC has used competitive bidding to substantially reduce the cost of infant formula and some other foods for infants. Competitive bidding is quintessential good government that harnesses the free market to deliver services at the most economical cost.  The Rokita bill, however, would require each state that wishes to use competitive bidding for infant foods other than infant formula to submit reports on the impact that competitive bidding would have on factors such as retail prices and product availability for non-WIC customers.  Such analyses appear to be beyond the capacity of many state WIC programs.  Producing them would likely require many state WIC programs to undertake or contract for academic-style economic analyses that could be costly.  Yet state WIC programs generally have tight administrative budgets.

These requirements appear to have been included in the bill as a result of lobbying by a major baby food company that opposes competitive bidding for baby foods (Gerber), which is a subsidiary of a multinational corporation based overseas (Nestlé).  In addition to being burdensome for states, the proposed requirements might make some state WIC programs susceptible to litigation by baby food manufacturers on the grounds that the reports the states submitted didn’t contain all of the mandated data and analysis (since, as noted, the data and analysis could be beyond the capacity of some state WIC programs to produce).  The resulting burdens and risks could have a chilling effect on the use of competitive bidding by state WIC programs to secure the best prices for baby foods (other than infant formula).  If so, that could have adverse consequences:  if WIC costs were higher as a result of less use of competitive bidding, either WIC would serve somewhat fewer children in need or taxpayers would have to pay somewhat more to serve the same number of children.

Reauthorization provides an opportunity for Congress to review and strengthen the child nutrition programs, but this bill sadly represents a step backward.

Here are three more reports from on these issues:

School Meals Block Grant Proposal Gambles With Children’s Basic Nutrition

Proposed WIC Changes Would Weaken Efforts to Cut Costs and Fight Fraud

House Bill Restricting Free School Meals Option Could Increase Food Insecurity in High-Poverty Neighborhoods

Please take action to oppose this harmful legislation.

1) Follow this link to send an email to your Member of Congress asking him/her to oppose the bill.

2) Tweet at your Member of Congress – see sample tweets below. Use this document (pdf) to help find their twitter handles.

.@EdWorkforce #CNR2016 bill weakens child nutrition progs & keeps kids from getting the food they need. Read @fractweets stmnt:

I join @fractweets in opposing the harmful @EdWorkforce #CNR2016 bill. Read more:

Ill-considered provisions in @EdWorkforce #CNR2016 bill will roll back years of progress

Tuesday, May 31, 9:30am – 11:00am, Ultimate Free Play Date, Boys & Girls Club of Greater Nashua, 47 Grand Avenue, Nashua, NH

Click here to see more events in New Hampshire!

“Childhood hunger – or food insecurity – is a national problem. It occurs when children receive insufficient food on a regular basis and in many cases, missing meals entirely. After a while, these children also experience ‘fear of hunger’ that affects their behavior as much as physical hunger affects their bodies.”

Are you familiar with End 68 Hours of Hunger?

It is a private, not-for-profit, effort to confront the approximately 68 hours of hunger that some school children experience between the free lunch they receive in school on Friday afternoon and the free breakfast they receive in school on Monday morning.

This program, established in New Hampshire in 2011, puts nourishing food in the hands of elementary school children to carry them through the weekend. Volunteers purchase the food, pack the bags and deliver them to the offices of the selected elementary schools. From there, a school employee delivers the food to the classrooms of the individual participating students. The students take the food home on Friday afternoon. The cycle starts again, every week.

Each bag of food costs $10 each week per child and provides two breakfasts, two lunches and three dinners for a child, with some left over to share!

The program is completely volunteer. It now stretches across New Hampshire and into Maine.

100% of the donated funds received purchases food for these children.  All efforts are voluntary!  No one gets paid!

For more information about volunteering, donating, or starting a program in your area, click HERE.