This year, Congress has an important opportunity to strengthen and expand federal child nutrition programs—including school, summer, after school, and early childhood meal programs–through a process known as Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR). Taking up a CNR bill is essential for improving child well-being, especially among children and families of color who face systemic barriers to food access and experience hunger at disproportionate rates. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of child nutrition programs and spurred implementation of a number of promising strategies to expand access and eligibility, from lifting restrictive requirements under existing programs to creating new ones like Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT). Now, Congress must build and expand upon the successes, flexibilities, and progress seen during the pandemic and permanently expand child nutrition programs to serve all children, all year, in all communities.
This week CDF sent a letter to Congressional leaders urging them to advance a robust CNR bill and ensure more consistent and equitable access to school, summer, after school, and early childhood meals. Specifically, CDF encouraged Congress to take the following steps:
K-12 School Meals
- Provide free school meals for all children, wipe out school meal debt, and protect children from lunch shaming.
- Reimburse schools for the total cost of meals and create an emergency funding stream to cover additional, unexpected costs during national emergencies, disasters, and economic downturns.
- Reduce administrative burdens and allow schools to use income data from other programs to qualify for Title I funding without requiring individual families to report their income.
- Update nutrition standards to reflect healthy, high-quality, culturally diverse options.
Out-of-School Time and Summer Meals
- Eliminate area eligibility* restrictions under the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO) and allow summer meal sites to serve all children in all communities.
- Eliminate congregate feeding and meal pattern requirements and allow sites to serve meals at more convenient locations and times after the pandemic ends.
- Provide funding for transportation to and from summer meal sites and expand off-campus meal delivery options for children without reliable access.
- Establish a permanent, universal out-of-school EBT program to build off the success of P-EBT and offer daily benefits to children of all ages and incomes when schools and child care facilities are closed during summer months, weekends, holidays, and emergencies.
Early Childhood and Afterschool Meals
- Serve more meals and snacks under the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and reimburse them at higher rates.
- Eliminate area eligibility* thresholds under CACFP to ensure all communities and children can participate.
- Expand CACFP’s reach to unhoused children and youth by allowing homeless shelters to serve meals to children and youth up to age 24.
- Make it easier for private child care providers to participate in CACFP by allowing them to verify their eligibility annually like public providers.
- Enable automatic enrollment for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) to reach more eligible families.
- Expand WIC eligibility to cover children up to age six and extend infant and maternal postpartum certification periods from one to two years.
- Improve the quality and diversity of food options available under WIC.
- Maximize WIC technology and flexibility by allowing participants to complete applications, certifications, and appointments virtually—either online or over the phone—to reduce participation barriers and disparities.
As Congressional leaders work to pass a strong Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) bill and additional recovery packages this year, we urge them to include these and other measures to maximize program flexibility, eligibility, and access for children and communities of color. Children and families need ongoing support and access to healthy, nutritious meals during the pandemic and beyond. We cannot revert back to strict, outdated, and inflexible standards that leave millions of children—disproportionately Black, Latinx, and Indigenous children—behind and vulnerable to hunger. To truly build back better and advance racial equity, we must fully and finally eliminate barriers to healthy food and success for all children. Congress can—and must—begin right now and advance a bold CNR bill.
To read CDF’s letter and full list of CNR recommendations, click here.
*Area eligibility thresholds govern where summer, after school, and child care meal sites can and cannot operate and serve meals. Under current thresholds, sites must be located in communities where at least 50 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch or serve predominantly low-income children. This drastically limits access to healthy, free meals for children in rural and suburban communities where poverty is less concentrated but no less harmful.