The National School Lunch program has served to protect children in poverty from malnutrition for 70 years. The current Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill facing the U.S. House of Representatives would impede and undermine longstanding bipartisan efforts in improving childhood nutrition. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the School Nutrition Association, the Food Research and Action Center, and the Houston Food Bank have all published statements highlighting major concerns and opposition against this bill. Pediatricians need to make their voices heard to protect the school lunch for our patients by asking legislators to oppose H.R. 5003.
As a nation, we have long recognized the need for every child to have access to proper nutrition in order to stay healthy. As early as the 1900s, both municipal and rural school systems recognized the need to keep children from suffering from hunger at school:
“ There must be thousands -very likely sixty or seventy thousand children-in New York City alone who often arrive at school hungry and unfitted to do well the work required. It is utter folly, from the point of view of learning, to have a compulsory school law which compels children, in that weak physical and mental state which results from poverty, to drag themselves to school and to sit at their desks, day in and day out, for several years, learning little or nothing.” – Robert Hunter, Poverty, 1904
Early programs often relied on surplus foodstuffs, which resulted in inconsistent and unbalanced nutrition being provided to students. Thus in 1946 Congress chose to fund and standardize these programs with the first National School Lunch Act.
“The need for a permanent legislative basis for a school lunch program, rather than operating it on a year-to-year basis, or one dependent solely on agricultural surpluses that for a child may be nutritionally unbalanced or nutritionally unattractive, has now become apparent.” – House Committee on Agriculture Report, 1946.
Since their inception, the national school lunch program and other childhood nutrition assistance measures have expanded thanks to bipartisan support. However, the current childhood nutrition reauthorization bill pending in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 5003; Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016) would undermine the goal of these programs by limiting access to and decreasing the quality of childhood nutrition services. Pediatricians need to make their voice heard and encourage legislators to vote against this bill.
The following aspects of H.R. 5003 are concerning for pediatricians:
- Block Grant Pilot provisions will cap school lunch and breakfast funding and empower states to restrict the eligibility of families, the number of meals provided, the length of time of year in which meals are provided, and the nutritional standards of meals. This will fundamentally undermine the quality and access standards set by the national school lunch program to ensure the nutritional health of all American children.
- An increased Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) threshold will prevent many schools (2100 schools in Texas alone) from being able to apply for free school lunch programs on behalf of their student population. This would create an increased paperwork burden on families applying for school lunch programs and decrease nutritional services to the working poor. As a result, 522,660 Texas children would face increased barriers to school lunch services or would lose their benefits altogether.
- The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program would have the word “fresh” stricken from its title. The importance of fresh produce in childhood health and early nutrition habits has been demonstrated repeatedly, particularly in the context of the current pediatric obesity epidemic. Removing the word “fresh” would enable schools to replace healthful fresh produce with unhealthy items such as canned peach slices in syrup.
Far from improving childhood nutrition, the measures proposed in H.R. 5003 would decrease the number of meals provided to children as well as the nutritional quality of those meals. Importantly, passage of reauthorization is not required for these programs to continue operating. I urge pediatricians to ask their representatives to vote “No” on H.R. 5003. If this damaging bill is defeated, we can work with Congress to generate a childhood nutrition reauthorization bill that truly does improve, rather than diminish, childhood nutrition in this country.
Bethany Cartwright, MD, PhD