The USDA and Child Hunger; An Unseen Issue with Serious Ramifications

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Soon after Barack Obama was inaugurated, the poised influence of First Lady Michelle Obama brought awareness and immediacy to the domestic crisis of child hunger, and secondarily the issue of juvenile obesity due to poor nutrition.

A Bold New Initiative

In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) was passed in a rare instance of abundant bipartisan support, granting school food authorities (SFAs) access to subsidized funding for nutritiously balanced school meals. These appropriations were designed to empower SFAs to feed children that were faced with economic hardship, living in abject poverty, or simply unaware that healthier meal options were available.

This invigorated a host of programs including the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the School Breakfast Program (SBP), the Special Milk Program for Children (SMPC), and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) among others.

Snags in the Supply Chain

Although designed with noble intentions, it has proven to be a long administrative commute from Capitol Hill to the lunch line, and the HHFKA has seen its fair share of diversions, speed bumps, and full-on road blocks. Plainly put, implementation of the protocols defined by the HHFKA have at times been sporadic, sluggish and even downright neglectful – while requested funds keep flowing from the source to the destination. Furthermore, many students have boycotted the program, expressing distaste for the so-called healthier meals. In some instances “black markets” have sprung up to facilitate the fundamental desire for salt. There are no specific cases pending, but at a moment’s glance, it is clear that negligence, poor leadership, and even pilfering could very well be at work.

A Band-Aid on an Axe Wound

Without citing statistics or leveling any particular indictments, USDA officials at the Food and Nutrition Service published a proposed rule on March 29th, 2016 entitled Child Nutrition Program Integrity. The document was officially published by the National Archives and Records Administration and proposes that any SFA jeopardizing the integrity of a Child Nutrition Program be fined by the USDA. Although menial, penalties will be administered by the USDA at reimbursement rates of 1% to 10% of appropriated funds depending on the severity and frequency of violations. Conversely, in 2017 alone the monitoring of state agencies will cost an estimated $4.3 million and will cost taxpayers as much as $22.7 million after five years.

Electoral Implications

Historically, presidential candidates who have championed initiatives to feed poor people and advertise that they will bring the fight to the hunger problem have fared well in an election year. Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhauer, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all championed programs similar to the HHFKA during their campaigns. Whether this was the deciding factor that got them into office is a moot point, it is interesting to consider how the current candidates might fare in the eyes of the public if this becomes a mainstream issue.

The current political culture of mudslinging and jockeying for the lead position has the nation transfixed on the home stretch towards the respective party nominations. Once the smoke clears and other concerns come into focus, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will bide well with this issue as they have both demonstrated great concern and initiative towards child hunger. The republican camp is a bit less unanimous. John Kasich takes a strong stance against hunger while Ted Cruz is rather vague on the issue. In typically outspoken form, Donald Trump blames the failure of programs like HHFKA on insider fraud.

The Future of Hunger

Although overshadowed by sensationalism, the issue of child hunger is grave. Many kids are not getting enough to eat in the so-called greatest nation on earth. It is a fact that malnourished children can not learn, grow, and thrive in the same way as those who get enough nutrition, which in turn indicates that failing to feed children today will lead to an inferior tomorrow for society as a whole. Once the national focus shifts to this issue, a clearer light can shine upon a realistic solution.

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