*ASN Science Policy Fellows, Heather Schier and Jessica Garay, PhD, RD

Ensuring food for children has been a national interest since before World War II. Federal child nutrition programs provide the support and infrastructure not only to feed children, but more recently to facilitate healthier diets for children. Since the passage of the National School Lunch Act in 1946, followed by the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, a variety of programs have been authorized, governed, and, in most cases, allocated permanent funding by Congress under the broad term known as Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR). Every 5 years, Congress is tasked with reviewing the statutes related to these programs, and reauthorizing them with ongoing funding. However, the last time this was undertaken was in 2010 with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Despite the fact that this law expired in 2015, the programs governed by CNR have continued to operate due to either permanent appropriations or fiscal year appropriations. In that time the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted and exacerbated two ongoing and salient public health issues: child food insecurity and obesity. The current Congress has begun to address CNR with a variety of marker bills (a compilation of several related provisions to be eventually incorporated into the larger bill; see below). It represents an opportunity to strengthen child nutrition programs to best support the health of our nation’s children. 

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What the Child Nutrition Reauthorization covers

As the name implies, CNR usually includes a variety of child nutrition programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), including school meals (National School Lunch Program, NSLP, and School Breakfast Program, SBP), the Summer Food Service Program, Special Milk Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). In addition, CNR will include the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the related WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program. Lastly, programs such as the Farm to School Grant Program and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program are likely to be addressed during CNR (although the latter program has also been previously amended in the Farm Bill, but not most recently in 2018).

With the passage of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, several changes were enacted relating to child nutrition. Specifically, a Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) option was developed and gradually rolled out across the U.S. The CEP gave school districts who were enrolled in the NSLP/SBP the ability to serve all students a free meal. This provision became highly utilized during COVID-19 as a way to ensure that students were still receiving food even while at home during quarantine. The 2010 Act also directed the USDA to 1) revise school meal nutrition standards and 2) develop nutrition standards for “competitive foods” available for purchase in school that are not part of school meals. This bill also led to a simplification of the application process for school meals. Outside of school meals, the 2010 Act required state WIC programs to start providing WIC benefits via Electronic Benefits Transfer instead of paper vouchers no later than 2020. 

For the current reauthorization, several marker bills have been introduced. Below is a select list of bills related to CNR: Access to Healthy Food for Young Children Act (S.1270), Summer Meals Act (S.1170/H.R.783), School Food Modernization Act (S.876/H.R.4379), the Food and Nutrition Education in Schools Act (S.1421/H.R.4282), the Farm to School Act (S.1328/H.R.1768) and the Wise Investment in Children (WIC) Act of 2021 (S.853/H.R.2011). 

Regarding school meals, a proposal to include funding for free school meals for all children has been proposed in the American Families Plan (rather than CNR) and is currently under consideration for Fiscal Year 2022 budget appropriations. In the event that proposal is not included, a separate bill, the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 (S.1530/H.R.3115) has also been introduced and may end up as part of CNR. 

Why supporting Child Nutrition Reauthorization is important

In the U.S., millions of children benefit from child nutrition programs authorized through CNR – namely those residing in low-income households. As a result of participation in either the NSLP and/or SBP, particularly after the recent improvement in program nutrition standards, children across the U.S. have experienced prevention of excess weight gain and improved food security, dietary quality, health outcomes, and learning outcomes (1-3). 

In another example, data consistently shows that WIC is a cost-effective program improving health outcomes for low-income families. This includes positive birth outcomes, increased child intake of essential vitamins and minerals, and reduced risk of obesity among child participants (4-7). These documented benefits underscore the need to ensure that WIC benefits are accessible to all eligible individuals. This includes strengthening access for tribal and indigenous communities and expanding eligibility for postpartum women for two years and children until age six.  

Ongoing and expanded research is needed to continue to evaluate the effectiveness of these programs and inform policies that impact child nutrition. As we continue to combat the negative health consequences of poor diet (access and quality) on childhood health and obesity, we must consider the bidirectional relationship between policy and research. CNR provides the platform to advocate for nutrition research funding, critical for effectively evaluating and advocating for child nutrition programs. 

ASN CNR Priorities

ASN advocates for the support of robust nutrition research to evaluate the effectiveness of the NSLP/SBP, Summer Food Service Programs, WIC, CACFP, Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, and the Farm to School Grant Program on improving diet quality and health outcomes of children participating. Additionally, several other nutrition-focused organizations have released their own CNR priorities, including FRAC, NANA, and AND. Lastly, if you are interested in hearing more about research and advocacy opportunities related to CNR, join the ASN webinar “Child Nutrition Reauthorization: Nutrition Opportunities and Considerations” on Wednesday September, 29th at 1:00 PM EST. Learn more and register online.

References

  1. Gundersen, C., Kreider, B., & Pepper, J. (2012). The impact of the National School Lunch Program on child health: A nonparametric bounds analysis. Journal of Econometrics, 166(1), 79-91.
  2. Turner, L, & Chaloupka, FJ (2015). Improvements in School Lunches Result in Healthier Options for Millions of U.S. Children: Results from Public Elementary Schools between 2006 – 07 and 2013 – 14 – A BTG Research Brief. Chicago, IL: Bridging the Gap Program, Health Policy Center, Institute for Health Research and Policy, University of Illinois at Chicago
  3. Ralston, Katherine, Katie Treen, Alisha Coleman-Jensen, and Joanne Guthrie (2017). Children’s Food Security and USDA Child Nutrition Programs, EIB-174, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service
  4. Khanani I, Elam J, Hearn R, Jones C, Maseru N (2010). The impact of prenatal WIC participation on infant mortality and racial disparities. American Journal of Public Health, 100(Supplement 1):S204-S209.
  5. Au LE, Gurzo K, Paolicelli C, Whaley SE, Weinfield NS, Ritchie LD (2018). Diet quality of US infants and toddlers 7–24 months old in the WIC Infant and Toddler Feeding Practices Study-2. The Journal of Nutrition, 148(11):1786-1793. The HEI is a measure of diet quality used to assess how well a set of foods aligns with key recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. An HEI score of 100 indicates that an individual has consumed at least the recommended daily values of 10 dietary components.
  6. Weinfield NS, Borger C, Au LE, Whaley SE, Berman D. Ritchie LD (2020). Longer participation in WIC is associated with better diet quality in 24-month-old children. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 120(6), 963-971; Au LE, Paolicelli C, Gurzo K, Ritchie LD, Weinfield NS, Plank KR, Whaley SE (2019). Contribution of WIC-eligible foods to the overall diet of 13-and 24-month-old toddlers in the WIC Infant and Toddler Feeding Practices Study-2. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 119(3): 435-448.
  7. Daepp MI, Gortmaker SL, Wang YC, Long MW, Kenney EL (2019). WIC food package changes: Trends in childhood obesity prevalence. Pediatrics, 143(50): e20182841.