While there is no shortage of issues vying for the attention of Congress during the lame-duck session that begins this week, we believe reauthorizing the federal child nutrition programs should be near the top of the list. Before Congress headed into recess for the election back in late September, the House of Representatives did not take action on the child nutrition reauthorization (CNR) bill passed by the Senate, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (S. 3307).

As a quick reminder, the federal child nutrition programs include the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Summer Food Services Program, After School Snack and Meal Program, and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). These programs help more than 30 million low-income children every year access healthy, nutritious food.

While the Senate CNR bill is far from perfect (in particular, it frustratingly uses money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as a funding source), it represents the best opportunity we are likely to have for the foreseeable future to improve the federal child nutrition programs in ways that will promote childhood health, reduce childhood hunger and obesity, and improve and simplify access. How so?

Well, for starters, the bill provides $4.5 billion in new funding for these programs — period. This investment is the single largest increase in funding the federal child nutrition programs have ever seen.

More specifically, the bill contains a number of provisions that expand access to healthy, nutritious food for low-income children. For example, it would allow children who are enrolled in Medicaid and reside in families with incomes below 133 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) in select school districts to automatically qualify to receive free school meals. By 2015, the CBO estimates that about 115,000 low-income children annually would be newly certified for free school meals under the bill as a result of this provision.

As the lame-duck session begins next week, House members need to hear from their constituents that passing the Senate CNR is a priority. Opportunities like this do not come often. Contact your representative today and help make a difference in lives of low-income children across the country.

— Patrick M. Tigue, Children’s Health Care Coordinator, New England Alliance for Children’s Health