Healthy nutrition is an essential building block of a healthy childhood, so First Focus Campaign for Children advocates based on the idea that no child in our nation should go hungry, and every child should have access to healthy and nutritious food. This is vital since one of five children is at risk of hunger and one out of every three children in America is overweight or obese, which costs the United States $190.2 billion to treat.

Recently, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Tom Vilsack gave remarks about the strides that have been made in recent years on school-based nutrition as part of the renewal of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization. “I’m here to encourage Congress to get to work. Don’t take a step back. Let’s take steps forward,” Vilsack stated. He was referring to maintaining nutrition standards for all items sold in schools during the school day that were part of the most recent Child Nutrition Reauthorization called the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA), which expires at the end of this month.

Starting in 2012, new guidelines were implemented (as part of HHFKA) that increased the amount of fruits and vegetables served at school, as well as whole grains rich foods, required lower fat and nonfat milk, limited calories, and reduced sodium and saturated fat in foods. These evidence-based standards, informed by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) are set to expire at the end of this month and may be a hurdle to HHFKA extension this year. They also required kids to take at least a small amount (one-half cup) of a fruit or vegetable as part of an effort to encourage them to eat healthy foods.

USDA reports that 95 percent of all school districts nationwide had implemented these standards as of May 2015, illustrating that they are being embraced nationwide. This is critical to the more than 53 million children who get much of their daily nutrition (half of their daily calories, for many kids) at school. Plus, kids nationally are now eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch, according to a Harvard study, which is encouraging in light of a childhood obesity epidemic.

Secretary Vilsack went on to cite the public support for nutrition standards. Based on the W.K. Kellogg Foundation poll released on August 18, nearly nine out of ten (86 percent) Americans supports providing school kids with healthy meals. Parents of school-aged children embrace these standards: 72 percent in a recent survey suggested support for the new standards. Students are also embracing the changes stemming from the HHFKA. According to an August 2014 survey by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 70 percent of elementary school leaders nationwide reported that students liked the new lunches.

Unfortunately, there have been some challenges associated with this legislation. States, as authorized by HHFKA to support childhood nutrition, have left $28.2 million of the $90 million appropriated on the table over five years. However, under Secretary Vilsack’s leadership, USDA recently launched an initiative called Team Up for School Nutrition Success that allows schools who struggle to meet the nutrition standards to pair up and learn best practices from schools that are successfully serving healthier meals.

There is much at stake if we do not renew this legislation that aligns with some of our greatest national priorities including: reducing health expenditures relating to diabetes and obesity; ensuring military readiness given that one-third of young people 17 to 24 are too heavy to serve in the military due to a tripling of childhood obesity; and improving educational outcomes for children who come to school hungry regularly, as reported by 76 percent of teachers.

In addition, Secretary Vilsack noted support for expanding participation in the School Breakfast Program to reduce the stigma among children who receive an additional meal at school. He also spoke of the importance of summer meals programs for kids who receive breakfast and lunch during the school year. Based on successful demonstration programs, the summer meal expansion would address the significant gap between those children who are on free or reduced lunch (20 million) and those on the summer program (3 million). These children and their families may not be aware of the program or are unable to travel to a summer meal site; therefore, there is a need for additional resources for the program (mobile sites, summer electronic benefit transfer (EBT), and non-congregate feeding programs).

U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry is expected to mark up the child nutrition reauthorization bill on September 17. That markup serves as a chance for Congress to continue bipartisan support for nutrition standards and work towards reductions in childhood obesity and child hunger. If Congress fails to act, new proposals around summer meals and other critical expansions for child participation could be delayed as long as five years when we expect to see the next reauthorization.

Child Nutrition: Don’t take a step back, says @USDA Secretary Vilsack – v/ @First_Focus #InvestInKids

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Want to learn more? First Focus Campaign for Children is a bipartisan organization advocating to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions. Read more about our work on…

Want to get involved? You can support our work by making a donation, joining our mailing list to receive updates and action alerts on these issues, or taking action right now by asking Congress to maintain strong standards for school breakfast and lunch in the child nutrition reauthorization bill.