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

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.

Free School Meals – Ensuring that All Children Are Able to Learn

Good nutrition is at the heart of learning. Studies show that, not only do students need a good breakfast and lunch for health reasons, but they also perform better on important standardized tests and assignments when they have a healthy meal. In contrast, brain functions slow down and are impeded by improper nutrition, junk food and poor food choices. So parents often turn to schools to offer the nutrition their child needs to excel.

The Problem with Lunch Programs of the Past

Free lunches and reduced-priced meals have been available to kids in public schools for some time. The problem was that only a select group of kids actually qualified for the free lunches. Many parents are low-income but fall just above the cut-off for such programs, yet still have struggles paying the amount charged by schools for daily lunches. For parents with multiple children in school, this can become a daily expense that they cannot afford.

Is Free Breakfast Enough?

Some schools have begun implementing free breakfast programs, in an effort to increase the involvement level of parents to get their kids started right in the morning. However, offering free breakfast is not enough. Many kids need free lunches as well, but their parents often do not know that they qualify, or they are not educated on what to do to get this going for their child.

Community-based Free Lunches

President Obama’s new free lunch program is out to change that. The legislation relies on the criteria of “community eligibility,” rather than individual need. Based on the general needs of the community in which the children live and attend school, free lunches are offered to low-income children.

This federal provision was made available as of the 2014-15 school year. It is now available for low-income communities with children who attend school but cannot afford lunch at the regular prices. It offers children 2 meals per school day: breakfast and lunch, which increases the chances of success in learning even more.

What to Do to Take Advantage of the New Program

Parents of communities need only to contact their local school districts to see if their area qualifies. Regarding school lunches, specific requirements are now much easier to reach than in previous legislative actions. The President’s new ruling opens the doors to many who had gone without proper nutrition in the past and makes it easier than ever to get nutrition to kids who need it the most.

What Does the Government’s New Dietary Advice for Americans Mean for School Lunches?

Every five years, the U.S. government revises its dietary guidelines. Each update should reflect new developments in nutrition and science, and the guidelines are meant to help all Americans stay healthy – including schoolchildren.

The newest guidelines were released on January 7, 2016, and there are some notable differences from the old guidelines. The new guidelines place a limit on daily sugar intake – it should make up no more than 10 percent of daily calories. Currently, many Americans eat over 20 teaspoons of sugar in a day, which is almost twice what the new guidelines recommend for the average diet.

Because the guidelines tend to dictate what students are served at school, there will need to be some major changes – which could take years. Many schools have resisted the change toward healthier meals in the past, partly because of the cost, and partly because they say students won’t eat healthier foods.

Why School Foods Are So Sugary

There are several reasons why the limit on sugar intake will be such a big change for school meals.

Many schools serve overly processed meals, from sugary cereals and bars to pancake lunches with syrup. Not only are processed meals more affordable than fresh foods, but they tend to last longer in storage because they’re full of preservatives.

Kids like the taste of sugar – and they’re more likely to eat (and purchase) more food if it’s delicious, cheap, and doesn’t have the fiber to make them feel full.

When schools face tight budgets, it can be hard to make the change to foods that tend to have less added sugar, like foods based on whole grains, vegetables, and fruit.

How Can Schools Enact Change?

In order to have healthy kids – who tend to do better in school – schools will need to make a change. It’s okay to start small.

Nearly half of sugars in the American diet come from beverages, from soda to juice. Simply offering things like regular milk or water instead of sugar filled drinks at school can cut a lot of sugar out of kids’ diets.

Prepackaged snacks or side dishes are another source of sugar, especially when they include sauces or dips. Offering whole fruits, like apples, bananas, pears, or oranges is a better option for kids.

Dairy can be another hidden source of sugar in school meals. Instead of flavored milk and sweetened yogurt, schools could limit students to regular milk and offer plain yogurt with fresh fruit.

Giving Free Meals to Hungry Students Can Get You Fired

Colorado and Idaho school districts have fired food service workers in the past year for providing a free meal to a hungry student. This is the case of Della Curry, the school lunch room manager who got fired by the Cherry Creek School District for giving free meals to students who couldn’t pay. Dalene Bowden, a cafeteria worker at Irving Middle School in Pocatello, Idaho, also stepped in for a 12-year-old student who didn’t qualify for a free meal and had no money to pay. A week later, Bowden was terminated from her position.

According to statistics, over 21 million children from low-income families qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch through the National School Lunch Program if their family’s income is 185 percent of the federal poverty line. Sadly, this means a matter of a few dollars can be the difference between getting lunch or not. In some public schools, students who don’t qualify for the low-cost or free lunches program are given a credit that ranges from $5 to $20 when they come to school without money for their meal. Other schools such as the Cherry Creek School District, provide hot meals to students the first three times they forget their lunch, and a small cheese sandwich and milk the fourth time.

As Curry herself noted, the so-called meal provides little nutrition to hungry students, and is not enough to satisfy growing kids and teens. Even worse, getting the cheese sandwich treatment is humiliating once the kids are old enough to understand its real meaning. Yet, many kids in schools across the nation are refused even these meals. “Cafeteria workers are told to throw out the child’s hot tray, leaving the student embarrassed and with nothing to eat,” states Bowden.

In a nationwide survey by No Hungry Child, a staggering 75% of educators noticed that their students came to school hungry, which greatly impacts their academic performance. Many teachers have paid for lunches for hungry children out of their own pocket.

But schools are within their legal rights to deny the students and hold their parents accountable, according to National Education Association. In one case, Willingboro Township Public Schools in New Jersey sent a notice to families threatening to dump students’ lunches in the trash if they were delinquent in payments. According to school food advocate Dana Woldow, this is one of the strictest policies in the nation, however, the consequences should be for the parent or guardian, and not for the kids.