Child Nutrition Act – Background

Child nutrition programs are effective investments in the health and development of children across the country. As programs that serve tens of millions of meals per day, they also present an opportunity for small and mid-size sustainable farmers to sell their agricultural food products and expand their markets.

The Child Nutrition and WIC (Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children) Reauthorization Act, or Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) for short authorizes all of the federal child nutrition programs, many of which are school-based meal programs. These programs help ensure that low-income children have access to healthy and nutritious foods year-round.

To ensure the continuation of these child nutrition programs, Congress must reauthorize them approximately every five years. The current CNR, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, expired on September 30, 2015, and in order for much needed improvements and expansion of the existing programs, Congress must pass a new CNR. The following is a summary of CNR’s history and the legislative process for its passage.

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Brief History of CNR

Two laws provide the foundation for child nutrition programs: the 1946 National School Lunch Act and the 1966 Child Nutrition Act.

The 1946 National School Lunch Act gave permanent status to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Similar to today, participating schools were required to serve lunches that met minimum nutrition standards, serve meals at reduced prices to children who were unable to pay the full price, operate the program on a non-profit basis, and utilize commodity foods from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Congress passed the Act:

as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food.[1]

In other words, from the beginning, the law was intended to support children and farmers. The House Agriculture Committee Report suggests some in Congress also believed the program would educate parents and family members about healthy eating:

The educational features of a properly chosen diet served at school could not be under-emphasized. Not only is the child taught what a good diet consists of, but [their] parents and family likewise are indirectly instructed.[2]

Building on the success of the first two decades of the National School Lunch Program and responding to movements of the time for economic and racial justice, Congress passed the Child Nutrition Act in 1966. The Act authorized increased funding for lunches for low-income students, school kitchen equipment assistance grants, and a pilot school breakfast program, which later became the national School Breakfast Program.

Congress continued to expand the scope of the National School Lunch Act and the Child Nutrition Act in the late 1960s and 70s, responding to persistent need, service gaps, and opportunities for improvement. During this time, Congress piloted and later permanently authorized the Child and Adult Care Feeding Program (CACFP), the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Congress also standardized and reduced eligibility requirements for free and reduced-price school meals and guaranteed reimbursement rates would reflect increased program participation and higher food costs.

After 35 years of expansions and improvements, child nutrition programs suffered major setbacks in the early 1980s. Budget cuts in child nutrition programs resulted in stricter eligibility requirements, reduced reimbursement rates, the elimination of school kitchen equipment assistance grants, and weakened nutrition standards. As a result, schools increasingly turned to processed and frozen foods that were cheaper to procure and prepare.

In the early 1990s, a series of reports on the nutritional inadequacy of school meals prompted Congress to require child nutrition programs to conform to national Dietary Guidelines and establish an initiative to support increased nutrition education. The WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) was created in 1992, largely due to the success of 3-year demonstration projects in ten states that started in 1989.

Debates about and policies on child nutrition programs continued to focus on healthy eating and lifestyles in the 2000s. The Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act of 2004 required all schools to develop local school wellness policies, authorized the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, and authorized a national Farm to School Grant Program housed at USDA. Unfortunately, however, the Farm to School Grant Program was not appropriated funds at that time. Following the recommendations of a 2005 report from the Institute of Medicine, the Food and Nutrition Service published an interim rule in 2007 that introduced fruit and vegetable Cash Value Vouchers (CVVs) to the WIC food package.

CNR in 2010 – The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act

The 2010 CNR included the most far-reaching changes to child nutrition programs since the 1970s, including:

  • healthier school meal standards, requiring more and a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and limits on salt and saturated and trans fats for school meals. The salt, sugar, and fat standards also apply to competitive foods, including a la carte vendors and vending machines;
  • an increase of six cents in the reimbursement rate per meal for schools meeting the new nutrition standards – the first real reimbursement rate increase in 30 years;
  • reduced paperwork for parents and schools and increasing children’s access to school meals by giving schools more options to automatically certify students, or even provide universal free meals (a provision known as the Community Eligibility Option);
  • a nationwide time frame for introducing Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) systems to WIC programs, requiring WIC program benefits to be disbursed entirely through EBT by 2020;

The Legislative Process for CNR

The CNR legislation itself will start in the committees that have jurisdiction over child nutrition programs: the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee in the Senate and the Education and Workforce Committee in the House.

Members of the House and Senate Committees have already introduced “marker” bills in order to draw attention to specific issues and proposals for CNR in 2016. Occasionally, non-committee members also introduce “marker” bills. Marker bills, especially popular ones, often influence the Committee Chairs, who write the bills that are eventually voted on by the committees and sent to the full House or Senate for further debate and action.

After both chambers pass bills, party leaders will name a conference committee to negotiate the differences in the bills and draft a “conference report.” The final version of the bill, reported by the conference committee, must be passed one final time by both chambers and then signed by the president.

All of the above is, of course, a gross simplification, and is subject to a number of departures from the standard legislative process. Such departures have become the new normal in recent years. In CNR 2010, for example, Congress extended the 2004 CNR on two separate occasions through short-term extensions to give itself more time. The current CNR, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, expired on September 30, 2015, and in order for much needed improvements and expansion of the existing programs, Congress must pass a new CNR.

Beyond the introduction of “marker” bills, including The Farm to School Act of 2015, little progress was made in 2015 by either the Senate or House in passing a new CNR.

A new year makes all the difference. The Senate Agriculture Committee marked up and passed unanimously out of committee a bipartisan CNR bill in January of 2016. Titled “Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016”, the Senate committee bill expands summer feeding programs, increases the ability for tribal schools and feeding programs to serve culturally significant foods, and compromises on the long-running battle over nutrition standards. The bill also includes strong support for the Farm to School grant program, giving the program an increase of $5 million in annual grant funding (from $5 to $10 million per year).

Unfortunately, the Senate CNR process stalled out this spring as the Senate Agriculture Committee and the Congressional Budget Office struggled to address discrepancies in program cost estimates. Some in the Capitol have suggested that the Senate Agriculture Committee is working to broker a deal around a modified version of their bill, maintaining the its core priorities and the strong bipartisan support from members.

Even if the Senate Agriculture Committee is able to address their bill’s budget issues and bring it to the Senate floor for passage, the likelihood of a final bill making it to President Obama’s desk remains slim. For that to happen, the House would also need to pass their version of the CNR, and then reconcile it with the Senate bill via a conference committee (or adopt and pass the Senate’s version). Both of those options seem highly unlikely, given the House’s passage of their own, very controversial, CNR bill in May of this year. Titled “Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016” (H.R. 5003), the bill passed by a 20 to 14 vote; all but one Republican voted in favor of the bill and all Democrats opposed.

The House bill contained a number of contested provisions, including restrictions to the popular Community Eligibility Program and a three-state pilot to block grant school meal programs, and has united many unlikely bedfellows in opposition to its passage – including the School Nutrition Association, NSAC, and leading nutrition and anti-hunger groups. Given such strong stakeholder opposition during a particularly contentious election year, it is very unlikely that the House passed committee bill will see floor time in September.

If there is not a major break-through between now and the end of the year, the CNR legislative process will start over in January of 2017 with a new Congress. One of very few potential bright spots in such a scenario is that both the House and Senate bills included increased funding and positive reforms to the Farm to School program, suggesting that such bipartisan, bicameral support would continue to hold even if the bill isn’t reconsidered until 2017.

NSAC will continue to urge Congress to adopt a CNR this year and move forward on the progress that child nutrition programs, like the Farm to School initiative, have made.

The National Farm to School Network and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition are partnering to advance farm to school priorities in the 2016 reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act (CNR 2016), with the shared goal of supporting stronger communities, healthier children and resilient farms. 

[1] Public Law 396, 79th Congress, June 4, 1946, 60 Stat. 231.

[2] House Committee on Agriculture Report P.L. 396-79th Congress, June 4, 1946.