As the pandemic shut down schools across the nation, lines for school meals stretched across whole city blocks. The demand brought visibility to an otherwise silent problem while elevating the need for permanent solutions to child hunger and economic crisis. Solutions congress now has the opportunity to advance through Child Nutrition Reauthorization.
Every few years congress reexamines the nation’s child nutrition programs during Child Nutrition Reauthorization. Through this process, legislation is developed to better meet the nutritional needs of the nation’s children and their families. Senate leadership within the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry recently urged congress to make Child Nutrition Reauthorization a priority and held their first informational hearing. House leaders have also begun conversations and it is possible Child Nutrition Reauthorization could “move” sometime this year. We must seize this moment to build on what works, harnessing lessons learned during the pandemic.
We call on the California congressional delegation to bring forward and help advance bold solutions that support California’s children, including:
Provide Free School Meals to All Students
Throughout the pandemic, all children across our state have been able to access school meals free of charge. In normal times, eligibility is prescribed based on a family’s size and income levels, but the cutoff does not reflect the true level of need in California. During the pandemic, federal legislation was enacted that enabled schools to temporarily waive income requirements. This was instrumental in enabling schools to serve grab and go meals to all children regardless of their age or economic background. Unfortunately, that flexibility will expire in September of this year, once again leaving too many California children in need of assistance, but ineligible for school meals. Congressional action is needed to permanently expand free school meals to all students.
Help Feed Children During Summer and School Breaks
Last year, over 36 million meals were distributed to California children in July alone — an increase of 359% compared to 2019. The expansion was possible because of temporary federal flexibilities, including lifting area eligibility requirements. Permanently reducing or eliminating area eligibility thresholds for summer and out of school time meal programs would help more children access nutrition support when school is not in session. But to ensure all children in need are reached, this solution must be paired with an expansion of an Out of School Time EBT program and be informed by implementation of Pandemic EBT. Pandemic EBT was delivered alongside meal sites and brought over $1.3 billion in food benefits to 3.7 million California school children. The program is estimated to have reduced food hardshipby thirty percent the week following its first disbursement. Successful implementation of these two meal programs has show that with appropriate resources in place California can help ensure more kids have enough to eat.
Close Gaps in Equitable Access to WIC
Parents who participate in WIC highly value the program, but participation was in a free fall until last year. California leveraged federal flexibilities that enabled the program to be more responsive to families needs and, in turn, enrollment increased statewide while it continued to plummet in most other states. When the nation’s public health emergency is declared over many of those flexibilities will go away, including the physical presence and remote issuance waivers. Families will once again be forced to face accessibility challenges associated with physically coming into the WIC office for enrollment (e.g., transportation issues, child care challenges, and the inability to get time off from work). To close gaps in equitable access to WIC, eligibility and certification periods should be extended and WIC families must permanently be provided the option to enroll over the phone if they choose, just as CalFresh/SNAP applicants are. WIC families should also have the option to purchase groceries online. The nation was in an uproar when WIC families were not provided online shopping options, and although the United States Department of Agriculture has taken some action to date, legislative change is necessary to make online purchasing a viable and permanent option for WIC families.
Help Feed Our Youngest Learners
More than 3 in 5 low and moderate-income Californians with young children have run out of food during the pandemic. Keenly aware of need, child care programs continue to work on the front lines trying to nourish our youngest learners just as schools have done. But California’s subsidized child care programs do not have enough funding to pay for food and our child care programs are not equipped with enough resources to meet the nutritional needs of all children at risk of hunger. Congressional action is needed to increase reimbursements for child care meals through the Child and Adult Care Food Program and to advance policies that increase the number of children reached by the program. Innovative solutions such as increasing the use of direct certification, creating community eligibility options, and improving the area eligibility test for family child care are desperately needed.