Congress returned to Washington this week to a crowded calendar and much uncertainty about the future. Undoubtedly, some members on both sides of the aisle would prefer to defer legislation until the new Congress convenes in January. That may be an appropriate strategy for controversial and partisan bills, but it would be a needless disaster for the bipartisan Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which needs only the House’s final approval to become law. Congress must not adjourn before approving this vital legislation. The 31 million kids who depend on school meals cannot wait.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act reauthorizes and modernizes the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. It passed the Senate unanimously in September and may be considered on the House’s calendar this month.
There’s universal recognition that school meals aren’t healthy enough. Nutrition standards are so lax that junk food frequently dominates cafeterias, school stores and vending machines. And federal reimbursement rates are so low that school meal programs are forced to rely on cheap, unhealthy products loaded with saturated fat, salt and sugar.
The bill approved by the Senate makes meaningful strides toward improving the school lunch and breakfast programs. It will get junk food out of our schools once and for all, provide resources to train cafeteria workers to create healthy and tasty menus, and expand the after-school supper program.
The benefits of healthy school meals are widely understood. Common sense tells us that kids can’t learn on an empty stomach, and research confirms that young children without access to reliable and healthy meals fall behind their peers academically by the third grade.
Also, the quality of school meals can have a powerful impact on the childhood obesity epidemic, arguably the greatest long-term public health threat facing our nation. Today, children consume more than half their weekday daily caloric intake at school. If they’re getting unhealthy foods, loaded with empty calories, it sets them on a path to obesity that’s very hard to break. Studies show that four out of five obese teens will become obese adults, with a heightened risk for heart disease, diabetes and a host of other serious chronic illnesses. We all pay a price for these preventable diseases, in higher health costs, reduced worker productivity, and, according to one recent study led by a group of retired generals and admirals, decreased military readiness.
The reauthorization hit a speed bump this fall amid concerns that it emphasized nutrition at the expense of preventing hunger. There shouldn’t be any conflict between these priorities, because the research shows a clear connection between hunger and childhood obesity. When families can’t consistently afford the healthy foods that support an active life, they rely instead on the cheapest calories available: fast food, junk food, and other filling options that pack on extra pounds but don’t provide the range of nutrients children need to thrive. These lowest-income families are the most reliant on school meal programs. In fact, for the millions of students whose families are facing severe economic hardship, school meals are often the steadiest and most reliable source of food—and sometimes the only source.
Our nation’s lagging economy makes the need for urgent action all the more apparent. Since the downturn began, about 1.5 million more students now receive free and reduced-price lunches. The Senate bill would automatically qualify an additional 120,000 children who are enrolled in Medicaid for free and reduced-priced meals without putting their parents through the hassle of filling out additional paperwork. That means more meals for children who might otherwise go hungry.
During the past month, many have worked to allay concerns about the bill’s impact on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other food-security initiatives. Those most concerned about hunger now solidly support this bipartisan bill, recognizing that when we prevent obesity, we fight hunger—and vice versa. The diverse coalition supporting the bill also includes education groups like the national PTA, health advocates like the American Heart Association, and the nation’s leading food and beverage manufacturers.
The House of Representatives should follow the lead of a unanimous U.S. Senate and pass the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. Let’s feed the 31 million American children who depend on and deserve healthy school breakfasts and lunches so they can learn and thrive.
Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey is president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.