It’s Past Time for Congress to Address Food Insecurity: Families Need the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Passed Now

When people think of food assistance, they most often think of food pantries. SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) may come in second. SNAP is an incredibly important anti-poverty resource to help families get food assistance. It is the largest anti-hunger program in the United States. According to Feeding America, even though they are the largest anti-hunger charity in the United States, for every meal Feeding America provides, SNAP provides nine. SNAP will be up for review over the next year as Congress works on the Farm Bill. To be sure, there is a lot of work to be done to make SNAP more equitable and accessible to eligible families, most especially our Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) families who suffer disproportionately higher rates of food insecurity. You can learn more about some ways to improve SNAP for all families in this blog: How Using A Racial Equity Lens Can Reduce Hunger For All Children.

However, most federal anti-hunger programs are contained in the somewhat confusing process called the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR). This is critically important legislation for Arkansas children and families. No child should go hungry no matter where they live, what they look like, or how much their parents earn. Everyone deserves to have access to nutritious food to ensure they can achieve their full potential. This is where the CNR plays a critical role for children and families. It is the major funding allocation for all federal school meals, most child nutrition programs, and other important anti-hunger and health programs such as WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, Children). Putting together the CNR requires Congress to adjust all these programs to be sure they are effectively addressing current issues relating to food insecurity. Even though most of the programs are permanently authorized, Congress has an opportunity to review the law every five years so that they can not only improve and strengthen existing programs by updating them but also test pilot projects to see how effective they may be for future efforts.

The CNR includes all the following programs and serves millions of participants nationwide:

ProgramDescriptionFY 2021 Participation
The National School Lunch ProgramProvides reimbursements to schools for lunches served in k-12 schools.9.8 million children on average participated daily.
The School Breakfast ProgramProvides reimbursements for breakfast served in participating schools.5.6 million children on average participated daily.
The Child and Adult Care Food ProgramProvides reimbursements to childcare centers, day care homes, and adult day care centers for meals and snacks.4.7 million children/youth and 101,400 adults on average participated daily.
The Summer Food Service ProgramProvides reimbursement for meals and snacks served by nonprofit organizations during the summer months.5.1 million children on average participated daily.
The Special Milk ProgramProvides reimbursements for milk in schools and institutions that do not participate in other child nutrition programs.59,200 half-pints served on average daily.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and ChildrenProvides benefits redeemable for supplemental foods as well as nutrition counseling and breastfeeding support to pregnant/breastfeeding/postpartum women, infants, and children (under five years old).6.2 million recipients on average participated monthly.
The WIC Farmers Market Nutrition ProgramProvides vouchers for WIC participants to redeem at farmers’ markets.1.2 million recipients total for FY 2020.
The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable ProgramProvides funding for fresh fruit and vegetable snacks in elementary schools, with priority for low-income schools.Not available.

The last time Congress passed the CNR it was December 2010, and the legislation was known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Congress was due to renew the CNR in 2015, but instead it expired on September 30, 2015, because they failed to act to improve these needed programs. When Congress doesn’t pass a new CNR, the permanent programs continue to receive funding through budget appropriations but any pilot programs or activities will end.

The programs that fall under the CNR benefit millions of families and in particular families that live in rural areas, families that have incomes below the poverty line, BIPOC children and families, and disabled children and adults. They also allow schools, afterschool and summer programs, and childcare providers to provide nutritious food to hungry children without overburdening their budgets which results in reduced access to food programs. The House has already introduced a CNR bill called, “Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act” (H.R. 8450). It has not passed the House yet, nor has the Senate introduced a bill.  

Here are just a few things that Congress could do with a new CNR that will benefit all children and families who depend on these programs:

  • The most important thing Congress can do is allow ALL schools to provide schools meals free to all children. This will reduce the burden on schools, reduce stigma for children receiving the benefit, and increase participation so that more students can get the benefits which include improved academic achievement, health, and behavior. Or, in the alternative they should at a minimum expand access to the Community Eligibility Provision so that that more children will have access to free school meals through the School Breakfast and Lunch Program. For the school year 2021, the Arkansas Department of Education reported that more than 310,000 children participated in these programs.  
  • Improve access to WIC through modernization. During 2021 Arkansas had 49,000 participants in the WIC program. Arkansas is one of only five states that continue to have an offline WIC Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system. This means that participants must go into the WIC office to have their benefits loaded onto their card unlike SNAP EBT where benefits are automatically loaded onto the card each month. The newest version of CNR should provide support for states to transition online, adopt modern technology such as online portals for application and processing, updated Apps that allow you to access digital cards and submit documents.
  • Address summer hunger by adopting the Pandemic EBT model that was so successful in Arkansas and across the country. We know in the summer food insecurity rises as kids no longer have access to school meals. Food insecurity during summer can have long term health and education costs for children. In spring 2020, when schools closed for the pandemic, many students went hungry without their school-day meals. Federal pandemic legislation created the Pandemic EBT program, which sent the equivalent of a SNAP card to families to allow them to buy groceries to make up for those lost meals. During the 2020 – 2021 school year, Arkansas estimated that nearly 325,000 children would receive P-EBT. In 2021 and again this summer, families received those benefits for meals that may have been missed when schools close for the summer. Creating a permanent Summer EBT program will help children who face increased food insecurity during the summer months.

These programs have not been assessed in 12 years; it is well past time for Congress to pass a new CNR. Arkansans are in a unique position to help Congress understand how important the CNR is to help us end food insecurity in our state as Senator Boozman is the ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry which is the Senate committee that is responsible for the CNR. We are running out of time not only in terms of the Congressional calendar this year but also for the children and families that are currently in crisis because of food insecurity. Contact Senator Boozman by email or by phone (202) 224-4843 to let him know that the Child Nutrition Reauthorization needs to be a priority now. Arkansas families can’t afford to wait another 12 years.