What's at Stake in the Fight for Lunch Money?

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I have a picture in my office of the signing ceremony of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Children Act of 2010. Everybody in the photo is happy and excited that a historic Child Nutrition reauthorization bill, one that included the biggest investment of new money to increase the nutrition standards of school meal programs, was being signed into law.

But, it came at a price. 

Due to Congressional "pay-go" rules, the $4.5 billion in new investments over 10 years had to be offset by cuts to another program. In this case, the offset was found by cutting SNAP/FoodShare funding. 

This was painful. I remember having many conversations with advocates about whether it was a good deal. In the end, many of us recognized that a historic improvement to child nutrition programs that could pass and be signed into law wasn't worth the risk of getting nothing or even a worse bill later.

Besides, the SNAP/FoodShare pay-for had already been identified as a potential funding source for something and so if not for Child Nutrition programs, it would likely have been targeted for something else, as it had been for other initiatives like state assistance to pay for teacher salaries and Medicaid.  

Fast forward six years later: Child Nutrition is up again for reauthorization with two bills in play, and I often look at that picture hanging in my office as a reminder of what’s at stake. 

The Senate version, which has broad bipartisan support, does a good job at making necessary and meaningful improvements to how child nutrition programs work in the summer time. This is important because while many of our children take a summer vacation, the risk of hunger doesn’t. And for the vast majority of children who depend on free and reduced price lunch during the school year, those meals aren’t as easy to access during the summer. Thus, the “summer meal gap.”

There’s also a version of the bill in the House. And while it does make some minor improvements to address the summer meal gap, it also rolls back many of the improvements we made in 2010 and seeks to pilot a block grant of the entire school meals program. This is something that we, and many other nutrition organizations, are opposed to.

What’s a block grant, you ask? Very simply, it’s a large sum of money that the federal government gives to state and local governments to run a program. 

Proponents argue that block grants increase the flexibility of localities to experiment with program administration. This is true and something we should promote, just in other ways (more on that below). It is also true that a block grant to the school meals program would effectively cap the program, breaking the promise that our schools will serve every eligible child. 

We can and must serve every eligible child and also give states and local school districts the flexibility they need to experiment and innovate to best tailor child nutrition programs to meet the needs of the children in their local communities. To incentivize that, Congress should authorize more demonstration projects that allow local communities to innovate on the existing programs. These investments should be made in addition to funding and strengthening the existing programs that already work, not at the expense of them.

Our kids are worth it. We proved it six years ago when we all came together and sacrificed to ensure that we could improve child nutrition programs. Millions of families across the nation, including hundreds of thousands here in Wisconsin, experienced a dip in their FoodShare benefits to ensure that our children have the nutrition they need to learn, play and grow.

You can help make sure that this shared sacrifice does not go for naught by taking these steps: 

  • Learn more about Child Nutrition Reauthorization and the summer meal gap
  • Sign our petition for a strong Child Nutrition bill
  • Reach out to your member of Congress to tell them that you support making meaningful improvements to address the summer meal gap.   
  • Share these with your friends and family to amplify your voice.

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