Congress missed a big chance on healthy school meals. They have one more shot to make it right.
Pear in Mind: A Blog in the Public Interest
Congress missed a big chance to ensure millions of kids receive healthy school meals. What is the status of school meals right now, and where do we go from here?
In passing the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, Congress failed to include key child nutrition provisions from last year’s House-passed Build Back Better Act. The Inflation Reduction Act is monumental legislation, to be sure, and will bring health care and drug costs down and invest in climate protection. But it left out our school children.
Fortunately, Congress has one more big chance to do right for the 30 million children who rely on school meals.
Every five years, Congress is given an opportunity to pass a Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) bill that reauthorizes and makes improvements to child nutrition programs such as the school breakfast and lunch programs. Congress has neglected to reauthorize a CNR bill since 2010. This summer, the House started to move its CNR bill, the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act, while the Senate has remained quiet. Among other great provisions, the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act would increase access to free school meals for children in high-poverty schools while protecting and strengthening nutrition standards to ensure meals remain healthy.
Child Nutrition Reauthorization is the best way Congress can invest in our children’s health so they have the nutrition they need to learn, grow, and thrive.
In addition, Congress has recently introduced or passed a number of other important piecemeal bills to improve child nutrition in schools.
Keep Kids Fed Act: Earlier this summer, Congress passed the Keep Kids Fed Act, which allowed free school meals through the end of summer and prevented millions of kids from losing access to free meals. Without another extension, millions of children could face a hunger cliff at the end of this month as they go from receiving free meals to reapplying for meals.
Technical Assistance via funding bills: To ensure schools are equipped to keep meals healthy, Congress has historically funded technical assistance support through annual funding bills. The recently introduced funding bill that is slated for passage at the end of this fiscal year (September 30), or else the government shuts down, includes $2 million related to this and some additional funds for kitchen equipment and infrastructure. Congress must pass its funding bills and protect and strengthen this technical assistance funding.
Child Nutrition Technical Assistance Act of 2022: While technical assistance through funding bills is a step forward, the gold standard for a robust technical assistance program is the Child Nutrition Technical Assistance Act of 2022, which would boost this support to $70 million. That introduced legislation should form the basis of any new school meal technical assistance Congress considers.
In addition to urging Congress to pass Child Nutrition Reauthorization, there’s another opportunity coming up next year at the regulatory level. In January, the USDA will update the critical child nutrition standards for school meals to align with the latest science and promote kids’ health. School meals are the healthiest food kids eat in a day, but they’re still often far too high in sodium and added sugar. We hope the USDA will restore and strengthen standards on sodium and whole grains, and limit added sugars in meals.
School meals are more important now than ever, and it is time for Congress to finally strengthen child nutrition programs. Urge your member of Congress to support a comprehensive CNR bill.