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Letter to the Senate Agriculture Committee on Child Nutrition Programs Hearing

May 06, 2015

Dear Senator: 

On behalf of the three million members of the National Education Association (NEA), and the students they serve, we would like to offer our views on reauthorization of child nutrition programs ahead of the Senate Agriculture Committee’s May 7th hearing, “A Review of Child Nutrition Programs.” We commend the Committee for holding this important hearing and hope the Committee will continue to take a thoughtful bipartisan approach in reauthorizing child nutrition programs, by building off of the successes of the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act.  

Our nation’s child nutrition programs play a critical role in fighting hunger, promoting health and wellness, and preparing students to learn. Maintaining the healthy nutrition guidelines set by the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) is a top priority for NEA. These nutrition standards have had widespread, positive impacts on children’s access to healthy foods during the school day. In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that over 90 percent of schools are successfully meeting the updated nutrition standards. NEA recommends building on these successes by ensuring reauthorization of child nutrition programs includes the following priorities. 

Training and Supporting School Food Service Professionals

NEA members, including nearly 500,000 Education Support Professionals (ESPs), many of whom are food service professionals, see the benefits of child nutrition programs on a daily basis. These professionals prepare school meals, maintain a safe and healthy learning environment, and help students learn about and practice healthy nutrition and eating habits. We strongly support the continued inclusion of required ongoing professional development and training that is:

  • Provided to food service managers and staff at no cost, and scheduled during regular, paid working hours;
  • offered in a format that is accessible – hands-on training should be maximized - and effective for the ESPs and appropriate to the subject matter;
  • inclusive of knowledge and skills needed for scratch cooking using raw ingredients, and for incorporating farm-to-school programs into school nutrition programs, in addition to training on general nutrition; and,
  • recognized through a national certificate program for various levels of training that rewards accomplishment through increased compensation and/or career ladders.  

Providing Adequate Equipment and Infrastructure

Schools need updated kitchen equipment and infrastructure in order to serve healthy meals in a cost-effective manner. Despite the addition of temporary funds for this purpose made to the National School Lunch Program and a succeeding appropriation, funds to upgrade school kitchens fall woefully short of the need. Reauthorization should include:

  • Significant financial support for school kitchen equipment and infrastructure in the form of both grants and low- and no-interest loans. Funding for this activity should be funded at no less than $50 million a year; and,
  • technical assistance to school districts in upgrading their kitchen facilities.  

Strengthening Out-Of School Time Meals Programs

Summer meals and afterschool snack and dinner programs see to it that children are well nourished when not in school and help ensure that they arrive at school healthy and ready to learn. Progress has been made in raising enrollment rates for Summer Food Service Programs (SFSP) in some states, but much work needs to be done to make sure that children have sufficient food and nutrition in the summer months to maintain their health and help avoid summer learning loss. At present, only 16 percent of low-income students participating in the National School Lunch Program receive meals through summer meals programs. To increase participation and strengthen the summer meals program, Congress should:

  • Lower the area eligibility test to 40 percent of area children;
  • provide funds for transportation. Site sponsors, especially in rural areas, attribute low participation to a lack of transportation and the rising costs of transportation. Funds should be provided for the transportation of meals to children and the transportation of children to feeding sites;
  • allow year round meals through the Summer Food Service Program; and
  • allow all sites to serve a third meal.  

Expanding the Farm-to-School Program

Expanding the Farm-to School Program beyond existing K-12 schools to include early education and summer meal sites would 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. 

The inclusion of these priorities in expanding on the successes of HHFKA will aid in curbing the damaging effects of poor nutrition among students. Among these harmful effects is the childhood obesity epidemic - nearly 1 in 3 of America's children are 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. Eight million children live in households that struggle to put food on the table (USDA, 2014). The National School Lunch Program serves more than 30 million students each day and more than 13 million students utilize the School Breakfast Program. For these students, sometimes the only sufficient meals they eat are at school.  We owe it to them to make sure that school meals are as nutritious as possible. 

Educators 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.  

Now is the time to ensure these child nutrition programs are improved and protected so that we can continue to see the positive effects nutritious meals have in 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. 

Sincerely,  

Mary Kusler
Director, Government Relations