When the U.S. House of Representatives returns to Washington on Monday, it will have many important issues on its legislative plate. As nutritionists, we believe that no pending legislation is more important than child nutrition reauthorization, known in the House as Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act or H.R. 5504. This bill reauthorizes funding and strengthens standards for all of the child nutrition programs, including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, Child and Adult Care Food Program, school breakfast and lunch programs, Summer Food Service program, and Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.
Added together, these programs provide food to over 116,000 Montanans every school day and spend more than $52 million per year with Treasure State businesses and growers. Here’s how these programs directly benefit our friends and neighbors in Montana:
• WIC food packages serve 21,110 high-risk pregnant and breast-feeding women, infants and children per month. This includes about half of all infants born in the state and translates into $13 million in WIC business for local grocers per year. Through the new Montana WIC Farm Direct program, local growers will also be seeing WIC dollars for sales of their local fruits and vegetables.
• CACFP serves approximately half of all children in childcare facilities (licensed centers, Head Start, registered day care homes and emergency shelters that include children). In fiscal year 2009, Montana CACFP distributed $8 million for 7 million meals to approximately 15,000 children. Childcare facilities use CACFP funds to purchase food supplies of their choice, from a variety of sources (wholesale food suppliers, grocery stores, warehouses, farms and gardens).
• Schools serve 80,000 lunches and 24,000 breakfasts daily. Half of the lunches and two thirds of the breakfast meals are served to children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals based on household income. Montana schools received almost $29 million (2009-10 school year) in U.S. Department of Agriculture reimbursement for school meals.
• Schools get more than $1 million to offer fresh fruit and vegetable snacks to children in low-income areas of Montana. Schools can purchase fruits and vegetables from local producers. Schools and other nonprofit sponsors also receive more than $1 million (FY 2009) in USDA funds to provide healthy meals and snacks to low-income children during the summer months.
The U.S. Senate passed its version of child nutrition reauthorization, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, unanimously in mid-August, just before the summer recess. We applaud Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester for their support of this vote. Fortunately, even in these contentious political times, child nutrition is a bipartisan issue. Richard Lugar, longtime Republican senator from Indiana, wrote in The New York Times prior to the vote that these programs “have proved vital to our youth, families and schools for decades, and that are especially important during this time of economic stress.”
As taxpayers, we urge our U.S. representative, Denny Rehberg, to actively work for swift passage of Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act for one simple reason: It is far cheaper to fund child nutrition programs now than to play catch-up down the line. When Montana’s youth are chronically underfed or poorly nourished, it often causes irreparable harm to their physical, mental and cognitive development. In Senator Lugar’s words: “Year-round child nutrition programs, on top of improving children’s health and teaching them to eat better, are critical to academic success. The school breakfast program has been directly linked to gains in math and reading scores, attendance and behavior, and speed and memory on cognitive tests.”
Bottom line: When Montana youth suffer from chronic hunger and undernutrition, it increases our state’s costs for health care, education and social services, as well as impeding our work force development. Feeding young children well is more than a humanitarian imperative. It makes good economic sense for maximizing our education dollars and publicly financed social services network.
Virginia Lee Mermel, Ph.D., CNS, is chair of the Billings Public Schools School Health Advisory Committee. Barbara Hailstone, R.D., and Dayle Hayes, M.S., R.D., are co-chairs of Billings Action for Healthy Kids.