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NEA Comments for the Senate Agriculture Committee Hearing on Child Nutrition Programs

June 12, 2014

Thank you for the opportunity to submit comments in conjunction with the hearing “A National Priority: The Importance of Child Nutrition Programs to our Nation's Health, Economy and National Security.”  We commend the Committee for holding this very important hearing and hope the Committee will take a thoughtful approach in reauthorizing our child nutrition programs for our nation’s students and schools.  

Child nutrition and school meal programs play a vital role in combating child hunger, promoting wellness and preparing students to learn.   NEA members see the benefits of these programs on a daily basis, including our nearly 500,000 members who are Education Support Professionals, many of whom are food service professionals who prepare school meals, maintain a safe and healthy learning environment, and help students learn about and practice healthy nutrition and eating habits.  The National School Lunch Program serves more than 31 million students each day and almost 13 million students utilize the School Breakfast Program. We must ensure these children are receiving nutritious meals.   

Childhood obesity has been a growing problem for decades.  We now face a national childhood obesity crisis, with nearly 1 in 3 of America's children being overweight or obese.  Obesity can lead to severe and chronic health problems during childhood, adolescence and adulthood, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and asthma.  The health risks associated with obesity impose great costs on families, our health care system, and our economy.  Especially concerning is the fact that the obesity epidemic is disproportionately higher among children living in low-income families, according to data from the National Survey of Children’s Health.  Among adolescents, the total excess cost related to the current prevalence of obesity is estimated to be $254 billion – $208 billion in lost productivity and $46 billion in direct medical costs (American Heart Association, 2013). 

In addition to fighting obesity, school meals play a critical role in fighting hunger. Sixteen million children, or 1 in 5, live in households that struggle to put food on the table (USDA, 2012). For these students, sometimes the only sufficient meals they may get are at school.  We owe it to them to make sure that school meals are as nutritious as possible. 

NEA members know first-hand that hungry children struggle to learn and that access to an adequate and healthy diet is essential to academic success. A recent survey shows that 73% of educators report having students in their classroom who regularly come to school hungry (Share our Strength’s Teacher’s Report 2013). The clear link between good nutrition and learning is evident in schools across the nation every day. According to the Nutrition Cognition Initiative at Tufts University, continuous low nutritional intake affects factors such as motivation and attentiveness, which can have a negative impact on learning. In addition, undernourished children are typically fatigued and uninterested in their social environments. Undernourished children are also more susceptible to illness and, thus, more likely to be absent from school.   

In these difficult economic times, food assistance programs aimed at fighting hunger and providing nutritious meals are even more critical for children and families: 

  • 12.1 million children lived with a parent affected by unemployed during a typical month in 2012, which is 5 million more children than were affected by unemployment in 2007(Urban Institute, March 2013), ;
  • Nearly 3 million children lived with a parent unemployed six months or longer during a typical month in 2012 (Urban Institute, March 2013);
  • 22 million (one in three) children relied upon Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for meals in 2011 (CBPP, 2012);
  • 16 million children (more than one in five) currently live in poverty. (The Recession’s Ongoing Impact on America’s Children: Indicators of Children’s Economic Well-Being Through 2011, Julia Isaacs, Brookings Institution, December 2011.)  

NEA strongly supports the school meal nutrition standards set out in the bipartisan Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. These nutrition standards have had widespread, positive impacts on children’s access to healthy foods during the school day.  The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that over 90 percent of schools are successfully meeting the updated nutrition standards. The result being a healthier school environment with more nutritious food options for students. The benefits and cost-savings to our children and our nation in the long-run will be significant.  

Food service professionals, like NEA member Roselyn Green, a cafeteria bookkeeper at Lester Elementary School in Florence, South Carolina, work every day to help meet the goal of providing nutritious meals to students.  According to Roselyn, her school is serving more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in every meal and fewer foods high in sodium and saturated fats, thanks to the new standards.  These food service professionals have also been instrumental in helping their students make healthier food choices as well.

As Congress reauthorizes child nutrition programs, NEA’s priorities will include the following measures aimed at combating child hunger, promoting wellness and preparing students to learn:

  • A strong commitment to the nutrition standards set forth in the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act to continue the progress made in ensuring healthier food is served in our nation’s schools
  • Targeted technical assistance to encourage state and local expansion of the community eligibility option for school meals so that schools can more easily feed all children who need access to a healthy breakfast and lunch.
  • Expansion and improvement of summer nutrition and afterschool food programs to ensure children are well-fed when school is out.
  • Expansion of the Farm-to-School Grant Program to provide students more access to healthy, locally-sourced foods, as well as educational enrichment opportunities like school gardens, cooking lessons, and field trips to local farms.
  • Strengthening training for school food service personnel to improve their ability to meet the guidelines of the school meals programs. Importantly, this training must be relevant to the job and conducted during work hours.
  • Modernizing equipment and infrastructure to meet the needs of proper school food service.
  • Sufficient funding to meet training, equipment and infrastructure needs.

NEA looks forward to providing the Committee with specific recommendations in these areas as the reauthorization process moves forward. 

Providing nutritious meals and food options at schools based on the standards set forth in the bipartisan Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act is crucial in combating child hunger, promoting wellness and preparing students to learn. These common-sense requirements are essential to ensuring all children a healthy and successful start in life, particularly those whose families cannot afford to provide fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods at home on a regular basis.  Now is the time to ensure these standards, as well as continued improvements to implementation, are protected so that we can continue to see the positive effects nutritious meals have on our students’ lives. 

We thank you for the opportunity to submit these comments.  We look forward to working with the Committee to ensure our nation’s students receive nutritious meals.