Childhood hunger does lasting harm. This new bill can help end it.

By Teon Dolby

In a perfect world, Congress reauthorizes child nutrition programs every five years. However, the last reauthorization was passed in 2010. This delay is significant because recent rates of food insecurity are higher in households with children (14.8 percent) than households without children (8.8 percent). On July 20, 2022, the House Committee on Education and Labor introduced the well-anticipated Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill, Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act.

This measure will help more children and families access healthy, nutritious, affordable foods. With the goal of eliminating child hunger at the forefront, the act has many provisions that would:

  • Expand community eligibility for free school meals;
  • Modernize the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC);
  • Increase reimbursement rates for school lunch programs;
  • Address food insecurity during the summer; and
  • Strengthen the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP)

The prevalence of food insecurity has long been disproportionately higher for families with lower incomes and families of color. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the food hardships that some children face. Research shows that the number of children facing food insecurity rose from 10 million in 2019 to nearly 12 million in 2020.

The pandemic also expanded preexisting levels of food insecurity to unprecedented rates among Native American, Black, and Latinx communities. Nearly 4 in 10 Black and Latinx families with children experienced food insecurity in 2020.

Federal waiver authority granted school nutrition programs resources to keep feeding children during virtual learning. These waivers helped to reduce childhood hunger during a time of high food insecurity. While schools are no longer closing, it is important to use lessons learned from the pandemic to create resilient, equitable, long-lasting food programs. In addition, the push for schools to return to previous operations does not consider inflation or continuous challenges faced in school meal operations — high grocery bills; increased costs of living; staff shortages; and supply chain disruptions.

“It’s hard for students to learn when they are hungry,” stated Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (D-MI), who helped introduce the new legislation.

Advocates are rallying behind food insecurity because it can damage children and communities. Hunger can impose consequences on children that last into adulthood. Therefore, it is essential to highlight some of the detrimental effects of child hunger.

  • When children do not have enough access to healthy foods, it hurts their development and leads to health problems. Financially struggling parents will have competing demands and must choose if the household income goes toward medical care for their child or feeding their family. No parent should have to choose between feeding their family or paying for medical expenses. The correlation between food insecurity and poor health raises the nation’s health care expenditures.
  • Family factors such as access to food, socioeconomic status, and parents’ level of education have an enormous influence on students’ school success. When a student has low academic performance, it can lower their test scores, raise their chances of repeating a grade, and make it less likely that they will graduate from high school. Students’ academic performance is often a predictor of future earnings and success.
  • Child hunger can lead to behavioral issues and the need for intervention support. To make matters worse, 14 million students are learning in schools without a nurse, counselor, child psychiatrist, or social worker, but they have police or resource officers. Many schools lack trained personnel with holistic, restorative practices to defuse behavioral disruptions.
  • Parents’ stress due to lack of resources and inability to provide basic needs can influence children’s mental health conditions. For example, childhood depression will likely progress into adulthood if left unaddressed.

Food insecurity has adverse, long-term effects on children, impacting them in adulthood. The improved Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill takes a critical step to creating a solid foundation that allows students to flourish and grow. The marathon to eradicate childhood hunger must continue to implement bold, transformative advancements.