Stabenow, Boozman urge Congress to make child nutrition a priority this year

Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and John Boozman, the committee’s ranking Republican, said on Thursday that Congress should apply the lessons learned during the pandemic to strengthen and expand key child nutrition policies this year.

The senators made their comments at this week’s National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, co-sponsored by Feeding America and the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), in cooperation with the National Child and Adult Care Food Program Forum.

The pandemic has sent child hunger soaring, with one in four kids not getting enough to eat. But in something of a silver lining, the crisis has also fueled innovations in — and insight into — anti-hunger programs that can inform future policy, notably by reducing administrative barriers to enrollment and participation.

Stabenow and Boozman echoed calls from advocacy groups during the pandemic to make federal assistance programs such as WIC, school meals, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program more effective.

They also expressed urgency around pursuing these reforms in the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization, the process through which Congress scrutinizes all child nutrition and feeding programs. Although the process is supposed to take place every five years, the last Child Nutrition Reauthorization occurred in 2012, and was not repeated as scheduled in 2016 due to irreconcilable policy differences between the House and Senate. Anti-hunger advocates, along with Stabenow and Boozman, argued that 2021 presents a clear opportunity to take up the process in the Senate before attention shifts to the farm bill, slated for 2022.

“Child Nutrition Reauthorization will allow us to make improvements to the WIC program,” said Stabenow, referring to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, an anti-hunger and nutrition program that has seen enrollment decline steadily in the past decade. Stabenow identified ways to increase access, such as improving cross-enrollment with other federal benefits programs and making permanent pandemic-era waivers that reduced barriers to online enrollment. “I’m so glad we have a new president who truly cares about these issues and is already taking action to make things better,” she said.

WIC advocates have consistently pushed for pandemic-era waivers to be made permanent, after Congress extended them in September for the duration of the public health emergency. Crucially, the waivers have allowed participants to apply for benefits remotely rather than in person, and expanded pickup options and the scope of eligible products — flexibility that experts say will help boost enrollment well after the pandemic ends. Advocates are also urging Congress to expand WIC eligibility to children 6 and under, up from the current cutoff of 5.

Boozman, too, stressed the need to “modernize” WIC and other federal assistance programs. “The pandemic has heightened the need for increased flexibility so that all options are on the table,” he said, referring to off-site and grab-and-go meal pickup options for children, and an expansion of the Summer EBT program, which provides additional resources to kids who qualify for free or reduced-price meals during the summer months.

“Hunger doesn’t take a vacation during the summer,” Stabenow said. “So we need smart solutions to make sure children in daycare don’t have rumbling bellies.”

Crystal FitzSimons, who focuses on child nutrition programs at FRAC, said that the pandemic has shown the feasibility of policies that previously seemed out of reach — notably universal school meals, which have become the norm during the pandemic.

“This is something that I did not see coming — that we would be able to talk about this as part of Child Nutrition Reauthorization,” FitzSimons said. Universal school meals don’t just guarantee that “every child, in every school building across the country, will have the nutrition they need to be able to focus and learn,” they are less administratively burdensome, allowing school nutrition programs to focus on improving food quality and providing healthier options.

Other tweaks to school meal programs could include expanding “direct certification,” whereby children from families enrolled in other federal assistance programs would automatically be registered for free school meals. Currently, for example, just 19 states use Medicaid data to populate school meal rolls; that should be expanded nationally, FitzSimons said.

Beyond the regular school year, there’s work to be done in streamlining summer meal programs, too, drawing on pandemic waivers that eased restrictions on the type and location of sites where meals can be distributed, said Robert Campbell, managing director for policy at Feeding America, which runs the largest network of food banks in the U.S. “It’s been wonderful to see waivers for area eligibility, so that all children who come to a site, wherever a site can pop up, can eat for free,” he said. A lot could be gained, he added, by making the meals program year-round and streamlining the site-application process, so that community organizations and other non-school entities would apply through the same channel as schools to serve meals during the summer.

Bureaucratic inefficiency also undermines the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which provides meals for low-income kids in childcare centers, afterschool programs, and homeless shelters. Even with emergency waivers to improve access during the pandemic, CACFP served 480 million fewer meals during the first seven months of the pandemic than during the same period in 2019 — a 41 percent decrease.

“Unfortunately, under the current system, even prior to Covid, these meals were out of reach to millions of children, so we need to make substantial changes,” said Geri Henchy, FRAC’s director of nutrition policy. One easy fix would be to allow childcare centers and afterschool programs to register for the program annually rather than monthly, as they are currently required to do.

“Every time we talk to people about why they don’t want to participate in the program, they say it’s because there’s too much paperwork, and it’s not worth the hassle,” Henchy said.