Hungry for Solutions

5/1/2015

STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE | MAY 2015

Businessmen and policymakers are taking a fresh look at how to get kids the nutrition their growing bodies and minds need.

By Ann Morse

At a middle school in California, kids are learning that food comes from farms, lunch from the soil. Students are growing everything from basil to chard to tomatoes in the school’s “pizza garden,” and cooking them in class and eating them for lunch.

Santa Barbara’s Ventura school district has been developing and testing a curriculum that integrates the school garden, farm- and farmer-to-school programs, nutrition education, and hands-on cooking for more than a decade. Over time, the district has crafted a collaboration of farmers, teachers, principals, parents and kids. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Diagram of child watering gardenYoung farmers gain experience through a scholarship and mentoring program. And they benefit from the partnership with schools that guarantees a market for their vegetables through the farm-to-school salad bar and farmer-to-student cooking classes.

Students benefit from healthier meals and gain real-life, hands-on knowledge from practicing math, science and cooking skills using what grows on the farm or in the school garden. All this, educators believe, will lead to better lifelong eating habits.

Because more than 80 percent of the student body is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, the school receives a federal waiver allowing it to feed every child lunch at no charge. This collaboration among the federal school meals program, the farmers’ initiative and nutrition education ensures that hungry kids eat healthy meals that provide the fuel they need to learn, says California Assemblymember Das Williams (D), who represents the Ventura and Santa Barbara areas.

Ventura’s collaboration is just one of dozens across the country fighting children’s hunger and poor nutrition in new ways.

A Persistent Problem

Many Americans still find it difficult to put enough food on the table. Some 49 million people, or 14.3 percent of all households, were “food insecure” sometime in 2013. This means, according to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that the family had, at times, “limited or uncertain access to adequate food, caused by either economic or social conditions.” In other words, the family didn’t always have enough food to feed everyone. Among households with children, one in five (7.8 million households) were food insecure, although in about half these families, only the adults went hungry because they would feed their children first when food was scarce.

How can so many Americans be hungry in a country where obesity is an epidemic? There are several reasons why hunger exists, but no widespread consensus on the cure. Americans who experience food insecurity include those who have lost a job or their homes or who may not own a car but live more than half a mile from a supermarket and bus stop. Fast food restaurants or corner stores may be close by, but the healthy choices they offer are limited. The hungry may be the family that can’t quite make the paycheck stretch far enough or who live with nowhere to plant a garden.

Food insecurity disproportionately affects children, the elderly, minorities and low-income households, according to a 2014 report from RTI International prepared for the bipartisan National Commission on Hunger. African American, American Indian, and Hispanic households experience food insecurity at higher rates than white, nonHispanic households. Children with noncitizen parents are twice as likely to be food insecure.  The report also found that food insecurity is episodic, with a household being food insecure for about seven months of the year in 2012.

Hungry children often have poor health, lower test scores and grades, and developmental problems.

Searching for Solutions

State legislators have been actively involved in finding solutions to child hunger both in and out of schools.

Connecticut lawmakers invested startup grants to help schools launch a Breakfast in the Classroom program, and Colorado created a free “Breakfast After the Bell” program. Arkansas, Connecticut and Pennsylvania have created bipartisan hunger caucuses in their legislatures to study the issues.

Georgia’s farm-to-school program provides meals and training for food service staff and teachers. The Georgia General Assembly has encouraged farm-to-table and farm-to-school programs, allowing schools to purchase local products and promoting farm-to-school day at the State Capitol.

Georgia Senator Renee Unterman (R) got involved when the economic recession hit her constituents hard, making food banks and food stamps a necessity for many families. “Hunger is not a political issue,” she says. “If you’re hurting, you’re hurting. How do you send a child who’s hungry and can’t concentrate to school ready to learn?” 

The Pennsylvania General Assembly took a comprehensive approach to tackling hunger back in 2004, by seeding the Fresh Food Financing Initiative with a $30 million grant over three budget cycles. The Reinvestment Fund leveraged that money with $145 million more to provide loans and grants to establish grocery stores in food deserts, to finance acquisition, equipment and construction costs, and to recruit and train employees.

Working with businesses, the project’s staff educated officials and the public about hunger and mapped where the needs were the greatest. The project attracted 206 applications from across Pennsylvania and financed 88 projects, providing fresh food to urban and rural neighborhoods that previously had none. The initiative made fresh food available to more than 400,000 Pennsylvania residents and helped close “the grocery gap.” Pennsylvania’s model was replicated at the national level in the farm bill approved by Congress in 2014.

Representative Dwight Evans (D), who led the effort in Pennsylvania, says, “Hunger is one subject that’s not a Democratic or Republican issue.” He got involved when he discovered that so many people were going without good, nutritional food. “I knew we had to do something to help.”

A Little History

Spearheaded by more than a dozen states in the early 20th century, Congress eventually passed the National School Lunch Program in 1946. Its aim has always been to improve both the quantity and quality of food available to children. Students who eat school meals have demonstrated better test scores, attendance and punctuality, and less anxiety, depression and hyperactivity. Today, free breakfast and lunch are available to all children in families earning less than 130 percent of the poverty level, with reduced-price lunch available to children from families in the 130 percent to 185 percent poverty range. For a family of four, this means maximum annual incomes at $24,250, according to the 2015 federal poverty guidelines (except in Alaska and Hawaii, which allow $30,320 and $27,890, respectively).

The school lunch program now serves more than 31 million children daily in 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. Almost 13 million children receive school breakfast every day, and another 3.5 million children receive meals and snacks through the Child and Adult Care Food Program at family day care homes, child care centers, homeless shelters, and after-school programs, according to the Food and Nutrition Service at USDA.

Summertime Blues

While 31 million children receive lunch during the school year, only 7 percent of these children, or 2.4 million, participated in summer meals in 2013. Federal, state and local partners are gearing up to increase the availability of summer meals for children in low-income areas.

It’s easy to feed kids in school, but much harder when they are home. Challenges include transporting food and children to meal sites, finding enough sponsors, and educating parents, who are largely unaware of the summer meals.

Information on grants, toolkits and technical assistance available to help address these challenges is on the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service website. The federal service will be working with 13 states this summer—Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia—to increase participation.

And states are making their own efforts as well. Texas lawmakers enacted legislation to develop a five-year plan to increase participation in summer meals, in collaboration with the Texas Hunger Initiative. In Nebraska, the Legislature funded competitive grants to conduct outreach, acquire equipment and train staff to expand summer meals. West Virginia is encouraging partnerships among the agriculture, education and health communities to expand summer meals as well as ensure that school children eat two nutritious meals a day.

Congress Considers

Congress is beginning to debate, as it must every five years, reauthorization of the child nutrition programs. These include school and summer meals, the fresh fruit and vegetable and milk programs, the farmers’ market program, as well as the Child and Adult Care Food Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

The last reauthorization in 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, revised nutrition standards to increase the servings of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, ban transfats, limit sodium, and establish a maximum calorie count. Some of these changes have met with a fair amount of criticism. Although the legislation included a $.06 increase in the cost of a school lunch (the first in 30 years), some schools found it still wasn’t enough to cover the higher cafeteria costs due to the new standards. Parents and others also have raised concerns that meal standards are too prescriptive and not flexible enough to accommodate local preferences. They argue that when children aren’t given a choice, food goes to waste. They also point out that student athletes may need more calories than the requirements allow.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act expires Sept. 30, 2015, and state legislators will be watching as Congress debates the benefits and costs of the act. Will child nutrition programs continue to receive bipartisan support? How will Congress address the concerns about the changes made in 2010? Can Congress come up with a way to protect against waste yet ensure kids receive nourishing food? Will a compromise be reached?

Meanwhile, back at the pizza garden, kids aren’t too concerned about what’s happening in Congress. They’re stirring the pot, and it’s full of their own concoction of vegetables, herbs and spices.

Wanted: State Legislators

Interested in hunger issues? Have some experiences to share with Congress? In 2014, Congress created the National Commission on Hunger to advise Congress and the secretary of Agriculture on the most effective uses of existing programs and funding to address domestic hunger and food insecurity. It also was charged with developing recommendations to encourage innovative public-private partnerships, which are due by this November. The 10-member commission plans to conduct at least three hearings around the country with opportunities for state legislators to participate. Want to know more? Go to Additional Resources.

The Costs of Federal Food Programs for Children

(FY 2013)

$79.8 billion

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs

$12.2 billion

National School Lunch

$6.5 billion

Women, Infants and Children (WIC)

$3.5 billion

School Breakfast Programs

$2.97 billion

The Child and Adult Care Food Program

$424 million

Summer Meals     

$166 million

Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program  

$16.5 million

Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program  

$11 million

Special Milk Program

Fighting Hunger Together

To raise awareness of hunger in America and improve the availability of healthy food, NCSL’s Foundation for State Legislatures launched the Hunger Partnership in 2010. It benefits from the expertise and contributions of more than 20 legislators from around the country, four legislative staff, and about a dozen public and private-sector groups.

Under the leadership of Georgia Senator Renee Unterman (R) and Pennsylvania Representative Dwight Evans (D), the partnership has served as a successful incubator where state legislators can come to share best practices and alleviate hunger among America’s children, elderly, veterans and other vulnerable populations.

Last year, the partnership became independent after four successful years under the umbrella of (and with seed funding from) the NCSL Foundation for State Legislatures. The mission and structure remain the same: Identify the best practices in addressing hunger through a strong partnership of public and private organizations.

Ann Morse covers hunger issues as a program director in NCSL’s Washington, D.C., office.

Additional Resources

NCSL Resources

Outside Resources