During this lame-duck session of Congress, the House of Representatives took action and, against the odds, passed the child nutrition reauthorization (CNR) bill. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (S. 3307), already passed by the Senate. First Lady Michelle Obama strongly supported this legislation as part of her Let’s Move! campaign aimed at reducing childhood obesity. President Obama is expected to the sign bill into law shortly.

The CNR bill provides $4.5 billion in new funding for the federal child nutrition programs. Together, these programs ensure that over 30 million low-income children every year are able to access healthy food. Programs like 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) are reauthorized as a part of this legislation.

While this bill represents an important step forward in advancing the health of low-income children, it is far from perfect. Our most significant issue with the bill is that Congress chose to reduce Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as the food stamp program) benefits by $2.2 billion beginning in November 2013 to pay for a large portion of the bill. Needless to say, we are deeply concerned and disappointed that Congress chose to fund child nutrition reauthorization by taking other food assistance funds away from low-income children and families. However, it is widely believed that the SNAP program was eventually going to face this type of cut. Even though we firmly believe it to be the wrong choice, it provides some small consolation to know the funds are being used to benefit low-income children. It also remains our hope that Congress will take additional action prior to November 2013 to find a way to restore this SNAP funding.

Although there are shortcomings, the bill makes a long list of important improvements to the child nutrition programs, which is why we supported its passage. Some of the highlights are as follows:

—  Direct Certification for Children Receiving Medicaid Benefits: The bill establishes a pilot program to allow children enrolled in Medicaid with family incomes below 133 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) in select school districts to automatically qualify for free school meals. Currently, schools do not have the authority to use Medicaid enrollment to determine eligibility for free school meals. By ending the requirement of a separate paper meal application for children under 133 percent FPL on Medicaid, this provision will greatly expand access to free and reduced-price school meals for low-income children and will ease the administrative burden on school officials to collect individual paper applications. — Community Eligibility for Universal Meal Service: Under the bill, schools in high-poverty areas may elect to offer free meals to all students without collecting individual applications to determine eligibility. Similar to direct certification for children on Medicaid as discussed above, this provision will ease the administrative burden on school officials to collect individual paper applications so that the maximum number of low-income children can benefit from having access to free and reduced-price school meals. — Categorical Eligibility of Foster Children: This provision adds foster children to the list of those automatically eligible for free meals. Foster children will no longer need to demonstrate their income when applying for school meal benefits, streamlining enrollment for these children to ensure they receive the meal assistance they need. — School Lunch Reimbursement Rate Increase: Currently, the federal government reimburses schools $2.68 per lunch per student for students who qualify for a free lunch. This reimbursement rate has not been changed since 1973. The bill increases this rate by six cents per lunch if the lunches meet new nutrition standards to be established by the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. This increase is designed to incentivize schools to offer more nutritious lunch options. — Equity in School Lunch Pricing: Currently, schools may use the federal reimbursement received for free and reduced-price meals to subsidize the “paid” meal price charged to middle- and upper-income children. Essentially, school districts are setting a price for “paid” meals that is too low to pay for the cost of providing these meals and then using the reimbursement rate for free and reduced-price meals to cover the shortfall. This practice prevents funds from being used to provide the highest quality meals possible to low-income students because the reimbursement is diverted to subsidize middle- and upper-income students’ meals. The bill requires schools to increase their “paid” meal charges over time until the revenue per meal matches the federal reimbursement levels for the free meal category. This will better ensure that funding for low-income children’s meals do not subsidize paid meals. — National Nutrition Standards for All Foods Sold in Schools: The bill requires the Secretary to establish science-based nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools, and these standards must be consistent with the most recent published Dietary Guidelines for Americans (these guidelines are jointly issued every five years by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services). Special exemptions can be made for foods sold during school-sponsored fundraisers. This new authority will help to limit children’s exposure to unhealthy foods during the school day. — New Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Grant Program: The bill allows state agencies to submit a plan to the Secretary to implement a nutrition education and obesity prevention program for low-income children that promotes healthy food choices consistent with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Allocating new funding specifically targeted at reducing childhood obesity for low-income children will help to address the childhood obesity epidemic.

Here at the New England Alliance for Children’s Health, an initiative of Community Catalyst, we congratulate our state partners in the region as well as everyone across the country who worked tirelessly to pass this important piece of legislation. Because of these collective efforts, we’re going to make important progress in promoting childhood health, reducing childhood hunger and obesity, and improving and simplifying the child nutrition programs.

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