WASHINGTON — U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, recently held a hearing to discuss the child health and hunger crisis as the Committee begins its work on legislation to provide healthy food to children in need in the next Child Nutrition Reauthorization.
“All parents want to see their children grow up to lead healthy and successful lives. One of the best ways to do that starts with the food on their plates. When those plates are empty, it’s a crisis for that child, for that family, and for our country,” Chairwoman Stabenow said in her opening statement. “The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the dual challenge of obesity and hunger.
“It’s been over 10 years since Congress last made improvements to our critical child nutrition programs. With all the challenges we face, it’s time to take action on a bipartisan basis. Feeding kids is not and should not be a partisan issue. I look forward to passing a strong, bipartisan child nutrition bill that helps our kids get healthier – not hungrier.”
Chairwoman Stabenow has led the effort in the U.S. Senate to address the hunger crisis and feed children in need. In the American Rescue Plan and other COVID-19 assistance packages, she secured several important changes to expand food assistance to families facing hunger. She helped create the Pandemic-EBT program to allow families with children receiving school meals to more easily purchase healthy food during the pandemic. She also partnered with superintendents to successfully extend flexibilities to help schools provide healthy meals to kids while schools were closed due to COVID-19.
The Committee heard testimony from leading experts in child health and nutrition. The witnesses stressed the importance of federal investments to feed children in and out of school and connect them with nutritious food:
Dr. Lee Savio Beers, President, American Academy of Pediatrics: “Federal nutrition programs are a critical protection against the adverse health effects of food insecurity in children. Pediatricians know the value of federal nutrition programs and routinely connect our patients to these programs. … As more families are left unable to afford healthy, nutritious meals at home, the importance of healthy school meals has taken on new urgency. Good nutrition is essential to health, and good health is essential to effective learning.”
Mr. Reynaldo Green, Vice-President, Nutrition and Family Well-Being, Quality Care for Children: “The healthy food provided by the Child and Adult Care Food Program makes a substantial contribution towards meeting the nutritional needs of children in child care, particularly low-income children. … Food insecurity, poor nutrition and overweight and obesity disproportionately affects low-income children both before and during COVID-19. Existing inequities have been exacerbated by COVID-19 – one in five families with children and one in four Black and Latino families with children have experienced food insecurity.”
Ms. Jessica Gould, Director, Nutrition Services, Littleton, CO Public Schools: “When the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act became law, child nutrition operators were excited and anxious because we agreed with many of the changes for our program and we had many challenges ahead of us. I am excited to share that our students finally understand that fruit and vegetables make a meal and students are enjoying and eating the options that we are providing.”
Dr. Diane Golzynski, Director, Office of Health and Nutrition Services, Michigan Department of Education: “One of the most critical pieces of our educational system are the meals available to students during the school day. Children should not have to shoulder the burden of wondering if they are going to be able to eat at school. As the adults who are responsible for those children, we must provide every tool available to us to safeguard their future success, including nutritious meals. … We can make healthy meals that are delicious! It does not have to be either/or.”
Ms. Heidi M. Hoffman, Director, Colorado State WIC, Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment: “WIC is a targeted, time-limited program that addresses specific nutrient concerns; even still, the WIC benefit is effective at reducing child food insecurity by as much as 20 percent. … For every dollar invested, WIC returns at least $2.48 in medical, education, and productivity costs.”
Mr. Carlos Rodriguez, President and CEO, Community FoodBank of New Jersey: “Right now, more children than ever are going to bed with empty bellies. … Many people who have been most impacted by the pandemic were food insecure or at risk of food insecurity before COVID-19 and are facing greater hardship since COVID-19. … The reauthorization of child nutrition programs provides the important opportunity to make good programs even better though policy updates that will improve access to quality child nutrition programs and ensure no child goes hungry.”
Boozman Continues Push for Flexibility in School Nutrition Programs
U.S. Senator John Boozman (R-AR), Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, continued to advocate for more flexibility in school nutrition programs as the Committee begins the process to reauthorize federal child nutrition programs.
“I have been a co-chair of the Senate Hunger Caucus for a number of years, so it is a priority of mine to see a child nutrition reauthorization bill cross the finish line. This hearing is the beginning of the process and it’s critical that we listen to those who are operating the programs to understand the lessons you have learned during the pandemic, and to know what is working and where there may be challenges,” Boozman said during his opening remarks of the Senate agriculture committee hearing on the issue.
Boozman noted he continues to hear concerns from program operators, including the Arkansas School Nutrition Association, about meal pattern requirements for milk, sodium and whole grains. If the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not extend the COVID-19 meal pattern flexibility, more stringent meal patterns that have never been implemented take effect October 1st.
“When schools are facing financial strain and doing their best to feed children during the pandemic, I find it alarming that schools would also be required to implement strict nutrition standards for which product is not available. This is a concern that needs to be addressed in the short term, but it is equally important to find a long term solution to give schools certainty,” Boozman said.
Jessica Gould, director of nutrition for Littleton Public Schools in Littleton, CO, echoed that message in her testimony. She recommended that current flexibilities on sodium, whole grains and milk be maintained and warned that stricter sodium mandates in particular, pose “serious concerns for our programs and ultimately students.”
“It is critical for our program’s participation and sustainability to keep these regulations where they are,” Gould said.
Additionally, Boozman stressed the need to modernize school nutrition programs, particularly the Summer Food Service Program, which he said needed additional flexibility to help ensure that children are getting the nutrition they need to succeed.
“Twenty-two million children receive free or reduced-priced healthy meals during the school year through federal programs, but five out of six of these children are missing meals during the summer. The Summer Food Service Program is hamstrung by rules that dictate a one-size-fits-all solution—requiring children to travel to a central location and eat their meals together,” Boozman said.
Boozman pointed out that more than 14 million low-income children across the country live in communities that are ineligible to operate an open summer meals site, and noted that even in settings where program sites exist, children often face barriers that limit participation.
“In communities where there are sites, access is far from easy. Lack of transportation and extreme weather often keep children from sites. In rural areas, where roughly three million low-income children live, the closest site may be several miles away. The pandemic has heightened the need for increased flexibility so that all options are on the table from off-site, grab-and-go models, to home delivery, to Summer EBT,” Boozman said.
During the hearing, Boozman praised the dedication of the witnesses, and all who work tirelessly, to provide healthy meals to children throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I also want to thank you for the incredible work you have done over the past year during the pandemic. Your organizations are made up of the heroes who are on the frontline every day ensuring children receive the food they need to grow and thrive. Your innovation, tenacity, and the commitment to ensuring those in need have access to food is truly amazing and I commend you,” Boozman said.
–U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry
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