By Katie Kanner
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The House Education and Workforce Committee held its first hearing this week to address the re-authorization of critical child nutrition programs, including the school breakfast and lunch programs.
There was widespread agreement among participants—which included representatives from anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength, the President of the School Nutrition Association, the first lady of Virginia, and a researcher from the Texas Hunger Initiative—that child nutrition programs are critical in addressing the crisis of childhood hunger.
What is not clear is whether GOP lawmakers will support maintaining the nutrition standards phased in since the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which significantly raised the nutrition standards for school meals. Conservative lawmakers have attempted to roll back the heightened nutrition standards that were implemented in phases between 2012 and 2014.
Donna West, a food service professional for 14 years in Alabama’s Scottsboro City School System, hopes not only that the nutrition standards of school meals are maintained, but that other important aspects of the law are expanded and funded, including training for school food service professionals.
“Do we need more training?” says West, “Absolutely. But it needs to be funded.”
Professional development should provide school food service workers with additional knowledge about nutrition, and hands-on learning to help them efficiently prepare meals from fresh, raw ingredients—which means students benefit as well.
West claims, “If we can cook from scratch more, and get away from processed foods, the children’s health will improve.”
The National School Lunch Program feeds more than 30 million students, and 13 million students take advantage of the School Breakfast Program. For some children, the meals they receive at school will be the most nutritious they eat all day. For others, it may be the only food they eat that day.
For the first time in recent history, over 50 percent of children attending U.S. public schools come from low-income families.
According to Share Our Strength’s Teacher’s 2013 report, 73% of educators report having students who regularly come to school hungry. Hunger affects children’s key cognitive abilities, depriving them of motivation and attentiveness, and can devastate their academic performance.
Dorothy McAuliffe, First Lady of the Commonwealth of Virginia, said it best at Wednesday’s hearing:
“How can we expect our children to be hungry for knowledge if they are just plain hungry?”
The hearing also touched on the need to expand the Summer Food Service Program, which serves low-income children when school is not in session.