140092155Last week the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its annual report, Household Food Security in the United States in 2012. This report measures the number of households who are food insecure, which is commonly referred to as experiencing hunger. When families are food insecure it means that that their access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources. The report found that, similar to last year, 1 in 5 children lived in a household where they or a family member did not know if they will go hungry tomorrow. While it is disappointing that in a country such as the United States any child goes to bed hungry, the problem would be much worse if it were not for federal child nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the School Meals Program, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children Program (WIC).

Over the last few years, Congress has been debating the reauthorization of SNAP and FFVP, as well as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed). First Focus recently released this fact sheet on the importance of both SNAP and SNAP-ED. SNAP provides nutritious food to over 20 million children every month so families are able to feed their children. Although SNAP provides food to other populations, almost half all recipients are children. Any action by Congress to cut the program could increase the amount of children that go hungry each day.
SNAP works in conjunction with SNAP-Ed to teach parents how to shop and prepare healthy food so that families get the most nutritional bang for their buck on a limited and tight budget. SNAP benefits, paired with nutrition education, is important so that families don’t have to make the hard decision between eating healthy and paying for other necessities such as rent and medicine. In addition, half of all SNAP-Ed funding goes to schools to teach kids the importance of healthy eating not only at school, but at home as well. Setting up important habits that make it easier for parents to buy and serve their children healthy food.

While children are getting the nutrition education in school through SNAP-Ed, the school food environment itself is improving to make healthier options more available to kids in the lunch line. Last school year USDA started to implement healthier meal standards that consisted of increased whole grains and fruits and vegetables. In addition to this, next school year food and drinks that are served outside of schools meals, but on school campuses (often referred to as competitive foods) will improve in nutritional value and kids will have better, healthier options as they decide what to eat each day.

The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program also takes place in schools and FFVP provides funding to low income schools to serve a fresh fruit or vegetable snack to low income children every day. Many of these children only have access to food during the school day. In conjunction with the School Meals Program and FFVP, schools are able to provide healthy food so that children can concentrate on school and not on their hunger. When healthier meal options are available all children benefit no matter what their income level. With millions of children being identified as obese, a healthy school environment is imperative not only to reduce child hunger, but childhood obesity as well.

As Congress continues to have debates over any federal spending it is important that the child nutrition programs are fully funded. Not only because cuts to these programs could add additional hungry kids to the 20 percent of children who already live in a family that is food insecure, but additionally low income families’ food benefits are already set to be lowered later this year. Families who receive SNAP will face a significant benefits cut starting November 1, 2013. In 2009 Congress acted on the issue of the recession and possible higher hunger rates by increasing monthly SNAP benefits. Congress took this action in order to respond to increased need as well as to provide stimulus to the economy during and after the recession. When current law expires later this year, a family of four will see their benefits reduced by $36 dollars a month, which is $400 over a course of a year. For very low income families, struggling to make ends meet, this will have a profound impact on parents’ ability to feed their children. Last week’s USDA report showed that hunger has remained unchanged over the last few years and there is no sense in going backwards and increasing child hunger through cuts to vital children’s programs.