House Democrats want to overhaul a federal child nutrition law that hasn’t been updated for more than a decade in an effort to correct long-standing problems exacerbated by the pandemic related to access to food for babies, children and low-income families.
“One of the key lessons reaffirmed by our response to the COVID-19 pandemic is that, when we invest in child nutrition programs, we help reduce child hunger,” Rep. Bobby Scott, Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement.
According to federal data, from January 2021 through April 2021, food shortage rates among households with children fell by more than 40 percent – a drop that policy researchers have linked directly to the investments and flexibilities included in the various iterations of COVID-19 relief packages.
“Even still, we know we have more work ahead to achieve our ultimate goal – eliminating child hunger in America,” he said. “This is a critical opportunity to help fulfill our basic responsibility to keep children from going hungry.”
Congress reached a bipartisan, bicameral deal last month to extend through the summer and part of the upcoming 2022-23 school year child nutrition waivers that have proven crucial in allowing schools to provide free meals to students and navigate pandemic-related disruptions, including shipping delays and order cancellations, scarcity of certain foods and rising costs.
Now, Democrats want to make some of those changes permanent – as well as modernize and expand eligibility for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, also known as WIC – by reauthorizing the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act, which hasn’t been updated since 2010.
The proposal, titled Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act, would expand access to school meals by dropping from 40% to 25% the proportion of students who qualify for free and reduced priced lunch needed for schools and districts to qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision – a threshold that allows them to offer free meals to all students. It would also increase the reimbursement rate for lunch by 10 cents.
As it relates to WIC, the bill would expand eligibility to age 6, improve access to telehealth and expand the Breastfeeding Peer Counselor Program.
Provisions in the bill also aim to limit food insecurity during the summer by authorizing the Summer EBT Program at $75 per month per household and lowering the Summer Food Service Program area eligibility threshold so that sites can serve more low- to middle-income neighborhoods, among other things.
House Democrats are hoping to clear the measure before the midterm elections complicate the floor schedule and evaporate the ability of Congress to pass anything significant.
But prospects are dimmer in the Senate, where Democrats hold the slimmest of majorities and have run into opposition from moderates in their party, including Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who’s been loath to support government spending ahead of a potential recession.
Yet the push by Democrats comes ahead of the White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health, which is scheduled for September and will be the first convening of the conference since 1969 – an acknowledgement of the long-standing challenges worsened by the pandemic.
Even before the pandemic, more than 2.7 million households with children – mainly low-income families and families of color – did not have reliable access to nutritious food. The pandemic exacerbated food insecurity, with both Black and Hispanic households with children reporting food insecurity at rates roughly twice that of white households with children throughout the pandemic.
“It’s hard for students to learn when they are hungry,” Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, Oregon Democrat who introduced the legislation with Scott, said in a statement.
“By updating the child nutrition laws, Congress can get children the healthy meals they need to learn and grow,” she said. “At a time when too many families are still struggling to put food on the table, the Healthy Kids, Healthy Meals Act will increase access to school meals, expand eligibility for nutrition programs, and make sure children are fed during summer breaks.”