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Child Nutrition Programs

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

Millions of public-school students are served by national child nutrition programs every year. Free and reduced-priced meals offered through federal programs support kids’ healthy development and ensure that students from low-income households have access to nutritious breakfasts and lunches at school.

Every five years, Congress reviews and amends these programs through Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR). The most recent reauthorization law, The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), was enacted in 2010. [1] HHFKA provides funds for federal school meals and child nutrition programs. [2] The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the federal agency responsible for implementing HHFKA. The USDA provides guidance and policies to states, and states work with school food authorities on implementation. This law expired in 2015, but the programs governed by CNR have continued to operate. Many child nutrition programs are permanently authorized and have appropriations with no expiration date. This is the case for the main functions of National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the School Breakfast Program (SBP), and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). For the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the program authority and funding for states’ administrative expenses is permanent, but the programs’ authorizations of appropriations expired on September 30, 2015. These programs and activities may still operate if funding is provided in appropriations acts, which has been the case in each of Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 through FY 2023.

Lunches supported by federal dollars must meet specific nutrient requirements. Menus must meet one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances for calories and key nutrients. Meals are also expected to meet guidelines for lower fat, sodium and sugar content while including more fiber, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables. Overly strict national nutrition standards, however, can mean higher operational costs for school districts including other unintended consequences such as plate waste and reduced student participation.

Finally, amid pandemic uncertainties, persistent challenges threaten the stability of school meal programs. According to the School Nutrition Association, 98% of school meal programs are struggling with shortages of menu items, supplies and packaging; 97% are challenged by higher costs; and 95% of schools have staff shortages. In response to the ongoing pandemic, the USDA extended a set of nationwide waivers intended to help school meal programs feed students through June 30, 2022. Congress subsequently passed the Keep Kids Fed Act, which extended some waiver authority and also increased reimbursement rates for the 2022-23 school year. Unfortunately, those increased reimbursement rates and waiver authority are set to expire in July 2023.

COSSBA Requests
  • Continue to fund increased lunch/breakfast reimbursements; provide funds to cover higher food/labor costs; and expand lunch/breakfast to offer free meals to all students. Support the Healthy Meals Help Kids Learn Act (H.R. 1269).

  • Reauthorization that reduces burdensome federal mandates and provides flexibility for school districts to administer healthy meals students want to eat, to include reducing meal planning complexities, cutting red tape, and maximizing staff time and funds for meal prep.

  • Congress must bolster NSLP/SBP to include expansion of community eligibility so that more schools serving large numbers of low-income children can provide meals at no charge to all students, including creating a statewide option so that states could more easily begin offering meals at no charge to all students. Under community eligibility, school districts must cover any costs that exceed the federal reimbursement. Because the reimbursement sometimes falls short of covering a school’s full meal costs, many eligible schools have chosen not to participate.

  • Extend nutrition waivers through School Year 2023-24 to ease supply chain and post-pandemic challenges.

  • No unfunded mandates or under-resourced requirements.

Farm Bill Priorities
  • Support robust funding and flexibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), to ensure families have the support they need to combat hunger.

  • Strengthen funding and support for programs that directly help children including the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and the Food and Agriculture Service Learning Program.

Position Paper

Click the button to download the COSSBA Position Paper on this issue.

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