Congress is expected to vote today on an important piece of legislation regarding child nutrition. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently urged Congress to renew funding for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, historically known as the Child Nutrition Act. Signed into law in 1966, this landmark bill created a federally subsidized lunch program for low income students. Anticipating a review that happens every five years, a diverse group of advocates, lobbyists, politicians, and celebrities have worked to craft an expansion of the bill that includes a wide range of strategies to make healthy food available to 31 million children.
The bipartisan bill is supported by over 1,300 national, state and local organizations and is a key component of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign to reduce childhood obesity. The bill unanimously passed the Senate in August but stalled just before the midterm elections as members worried the $4.5 billion needed to fund the bill wouldn’t be well received in a poor economy. Some anti-hunger advocates were also concerned that the bill took its funding from cuts to the food stamp program (now known as SNAP). Many argued that it was counterintuitive to increase children's access to healthy food in school while decreasing their access at home. The White House has assured critics that it will work to remove the cuts to SNAP, and advocates of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act have pointed out that it will go a long way towards relieving nutritional deficits in kids in many ways. Among other things, the bill will:
- expand the federal free and reduced-price school lunch program to reach many more low-income students;
- increase the number of school breakfasts, after-school meals and summer lunches so that kids have the nutrition they need to succeed all day and throughout the year;
- improve nutrition for kids of all economic backgrounds by updating school lunch nutrition standards and providing additional training for lunchroom workers;
- provide additional funding for farm-to-cafeteria programs that connect kids to healthy local produce; and
- make the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) feeding program healthier and easier to use.
School lunch programs and other government funded aid are generally considered a liberal rather than a conservative priority. Interestingly, however, the Child Nutrition Act was first pushed by the military, which considered the health of the nation's children to be a matter of national security. Today, members of the military are still fighting for its renewal. Over 100 retired U.S. generals and admirals wrote an open letter to Congress in September urging them to pass this bill. Mission: Readiness, an organization dedicated to ensuring that American youth meet the health and educational requirements for military service, released a report called "Too Fat to Fight" in April of this year. They revealed that 75% of American youth are not prepared for military service, including 27% of American youth 17-24 who are too fat to join the army.
While many Republicans opposed the bill on the grounds that it was too expensive, even the military understands that health is a necessity, not a luxury. Good health, supported by good nutrition, is a necessary precondition not only for military readiness but for learning, innovation, efficiency in the workplace and an improved quality of life overall. Health should not be considered a liberal or elitist priority. The health of our children, especially, should be one priority we can all agree on.