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Strengthening the Child Nutrition Programs

The Brief

The Bipartisan Policy Center would like to thank the World Central Kitchen for their support of this project.

Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) provides Congress with an opportunity to reduce hunger and improve the diet and health of millions of children throughout the United States by strengthening the child nutrition programs.1 Federal nutrition programs authorized under CNR include the National School Lunch Program (NSLP); School Breakfast Program (SBP); Child and Adult
Care Food Program (CACFP); Summer Food Service Program (SFSP); Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); Special Milk Program; Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP); and Farm to School program.2

The last CNR, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), became law in 2010. Although some of its provisions expired in late 2015, most of the federal nutrition programs have continued to operate via annual appropriations legislation. Federal nutrition programs, including the child nutrition programs and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), serve one in four
Americans.3 Total federal expenditures for the child nutrition programs reached $23.6 billion in fiscal year 2019 and $32.3 billion in FY2020, including $10.7 billion for the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program (P-EBT).4a

Food and nutrition security are vital to children’s long-term health and well- being. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life,” and food insecurity as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”5 In 2020, food insecurity affected about one in 10 households. Certain populations were disproportionately impacted. From 2019 to 2020, the prevalence of food insecurity increased for households with Black, non-Hispanic members from 19.1% to 21.7%.6 Although school nutrition programs and other food assistance programs often shield children from hunger and food insecurity, in 2020, 7.6% of U.S. households with children experienced food insecurity, an increase from 6.5% in 2019.7

The U.S. government has no official definition of nutrition security, but the term often means “consistent access, availability, and affordability of foods and beverages that promote well-being and prevent (and if needed, treat) disease.”8 Since 2020, USDA has placed a new and much needed emphasis on nutrition security when formulating its goals and programming.9 People with poor diet quality face increased risk of overweight and obesity, which affects about one in five children and adolescents,10 as well as other costly chronic health problems.

The child nutrition programs play a crucial role in ensuring food and nutrition security among the nation’s youth. At a time when many families are still experiencing COVID-19-related food and nutrition insecurity, it is vital that Congress pass a strong CNR. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Food and Nutrition Security Task Force makes the following policy recommendations for strengthening the child nutrition programs to improve food and nutrition security:

Strengthening Food and Nutrition Security in School

  • Ensure all children, regardless of household income, have access to nutritious foods to allow them to learn and grow by providing school breakfast, school lunch, afterschool meals, and summer meals to all students at no cost.
  • Strengthen nutrition in the school nutrition programs.
  • Strengthen nutrition education, including experiential learning, in schools.
  • Support investments in kitchen equipment and infrastructure through loans or grants that help schools meet or exceed nutrition standards and provide appealing and culturally relevant meals to students.

Strengthening Food and Nutrition Security Out of School

  • Expand access to out-of-school nutrition programs.
  • Make Summer EBT a permanent program and allow students to access EBT benefits during school breaks, holidays, closures, and other emergencies.

Strengthening Food and Nutrition Security in Pregnant and Postpartum Women and Young Children Through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

  • Improve nutrition security in the WIC population by enhancing the value of the WIC benefit, expanding program eligibility, streamlining certifications, and strengthening nutrition and breastfeeding supports.
  • Utilize technology to modernize service delivery, increase program participation and retention, improve the WIC shopping experience, and make redemption of WIC benefits easier for participants and retailers.

Strengthening Food and Nutrition Security Across Programs

  • Maintain and, if possible, strengthen nutrition standards for all programs to better align them with the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
  • Streamline and facilitate eligibility, enrollment, and data sharing across programs that address food and nutrition insecurity and other social determinants of health.
  • Support an increase in the accessibility, affordability, and intake of fruits and vegetables in child nutrition programs to improve nutrition security.
  • Strengthen research investment and data collection at USDA, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to identify rates of and interconnections between food and nutrition insecurity, diet quality, child nutrition program participation, academic performance, chronic disease, and later performance in the workforce and eligibility for the military, as well as barriers to participation in child nutrition programs among populations at disproportionate risk.
  • Improve children’s food and nutrition security in the health care sector through congressional, government agency, and private sector actions by collaborating on data sharing, implementing demonstration projects, improving access to nutrition-focused health care professionals, and increasing focus on prevention initiatives.

The task force acknowledges that the implementation of their recommendations could add to federal spending beyond current law and provides several considerations for offsets. However, the task force does not endorse any specific pay-fors.

The implementation of the recommendations in this brief, through both congressional and administrative actions, aims to improve food and nutrition security by strengthening the child nutrition programs. Federal child nutrition programs authorized through CNR are vital to preventing and reducing food and nutrition insecurity and improving children’s health.

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End Notes:

a Expenditures for Child Nutrition Programs include the sum of the expenditures provided by USDA for the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program, Summer Food Service Program, and Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer, plus expenditures for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, provided separately by USDA.
1 USDA Food and Nutrition Service, Child Nutrition Tables: Participation and Meals Served, July 2021. Available at:
2 Congressional Research Service, “Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR): An Overview,” February 2021. Available at:
3 USDA Food and Nutrition Service, “FNS Nutrition Programs,” November 2021. Available at:
4 USDA Food and Nutrition Service, “Program Data Overview,” July 2021. Available at:
5 U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Food Security in the U.S.: Measurement,” September 2021. Available at:
6 U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Household Food Security in the United States in 2020,” September 2021. Available at:
7 Ibid.
8 D. Mozaffarian, S. Fleischhacker, and J.R. Andrés, “Prioritizing Nutrition Security in the US,” JAMA, 325(16): 1605-1606, 2021. Available at:
9 Food Research & Action Center, National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference 2021, Secretary Vilsack Comments. Available at:
10 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Childhood Overweight and Obesity,” August 2021. Available at:

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