Assessing the Implementation of the Child Nutrition Act of 2010 and Preparing for Its Reauthorization in 2015

Caroyln Burstein
September 26, 2014

The Child Nutrition Act, reauthorized in 2010 as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA), covers funding for school meal and child nutrition programs, known variously as the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, Afterschool Meal Program, Summer Nutrition Program and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).  The bill that reauthorizes these programs is usually referred to by shorthand as the Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill. In 2010 these child nutrition programs were re-authorized for five years and included $4.5 billion in new funding over 10 years.

Before considering the elements of the HHFKA, let’s consider how the federal government became involved in child nutrition in the first place. It all began back in 1936 with the innocuous-sounding congressional bill called the Commodity Donation Program, whereby the government, concerned that improved agricultural productivity would continue to depress the prices of   crops, began to distribute surplus farm commodities to schools for meals for students who could not otherwise afford them.

Then in 1946, Congress passed the National School Lunch Act to establish permanently a federally funded school lunch program. In 1966 President Johnson signed the first Child Nutrition Act (CNA) into law that authorized the federal school meal and child nutrition programs. The CNA was to be re-authorized by Congress every five years. Since then the law has expanded to include free and reduced-priced breakfast, milk, after-school snacks and summer meals for qualifying students.

The following are the key provisions of the HHFKA of 2010:

  • Improves nutrition and focuses on reducing childhood obesity by setting nutritional standards for allfoods regularly sold in schools, including those sold in vending machines; providing additional funding to schools that meet updated nutritional standards; helping communities establish local farm to school networks; setting basic standards for school wellness policies, including those in physical activities; promoting nutrition and wellness in child care settings; and, expanding support for breastfeeding through the WIC program
  • Increases access  to Child Nutrition programs by allowing direct certification of children through the use of Medicaid data; setting benchmarks for states to improve the certification process and thus enroll more students; allowing more universal meal access for eligible students by eliminating paper applications and using census data to determine school-wide or community eligibility; and, expanding USDA authority to support meals served to at-risk children in afterschool programs
  • Increases program monitoring and integrity  by requiring school districts to be audited every three years on their compliance with nutritional standards; requiring schools to make nutritional information more readily available to parents; ensuring the safety of school foods; and, providing training and technical assistance for school food service providers

Since the HHFKA is a federal entitlement program for all eligible children living in the U.S. regardless of citizenship status, let’s begin our assessment of the 2010 law with the eligibility and enrollment process. Children can be enrolled in the HHFKA in two major ways: 1) parents can apply for the programs by submitting information about their total household incomes through a simple paper application provided by the school district; or 2) through “direct certification,” a process whereby state agencies or school food authorities obtain lists of families enrolled in the food stamp program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – SNAP) or the “welfare” program (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – TANF) and match those lists with the students enrolled in schools the agency serves. Since the 2008-09 school year, school districts have been required to directly certify students. This change has increased access to free and reduced-price lunches as well as limited the potential for error by automatically enrolling students rather than relying on parent’s paper applications.

And this school year, 2014-15, a third method of enrollment is available to school districts, known as “community eligibility.” Community eligibility covers schools with 40% or more of students who are identified as coming from families receiving food stamps and/or welfare benefits or participating in the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), children enrolled in Head Start, or students who are homeless or in foster care. These schools may be reimbursed directly and all children in the school may receive free breakfast and lunch.

High-poverty school districts with low direct certification rates would find that their identified student percentage does not accurately reflect the level of poverty within the student population and should be eager to participate in community eligibility, thus eliminating barriers to participation for numerous low-income, hungry children.

Direct certification became an option for schools as early as 1986, but it was not until 2010 that the HHFKA set performance benchmarks for states, requiring them to directly certify 95% of eligible children by the 2013-14 school year that ended this past June. While states have made significant progress in improving their direct certification rates, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has examined data from the USDA that show that 28 states did not achieve Congress’ benchmark for the 2012-13 school year (data are not yet available for the 2013-14 school year). Twelve states did not even reach 80% of the 90% goal, thus missing more than one in five eligible children.

According to CBPP, the USDA has increased flexibility and strengthened the direct certification process over the past five years, including highlighting the best practices of high-performing states that have received bonus awards and making $17 million in grants available to states to improve their direct certification systems.  The wide gap between the 12 states that had not even achieved 80% direct certification and those near the top clearly demonstrates that some states’ direct certification systems are simply less effective than other states’ systems.

CBPP concludes its analysis by stating that “direct certification ensures that vulnerable children at risk of hunger can count on getting free breakfasts and lunches at school and, as direct certification systems improve, millions of low-income students across the country will benefit from improved access to school meals. At the same time, school districts will benefit even more from the simplified program administration and improved program integrity.”

The states with strong direct certification systems are well positioned to maximize the number of high-poverty schools that are eligible this school year for the community eligibility process that will allow them to adopt the universal meal provision. Some of these states already were early participants in community eligibility (11 states were involved, some as early as 2011). Community eligibility was established in the HHFKA to enable high-poverty schools to feed more students and focus on meal quality rather than on paperwork.

In fiscal year 2013, more than 70% of funds spent for child nutrition funded the National School Lunch Program, while just over 22% financed school breakfasts and less than 1% financed school milk programs. The school lunch program is the second largest nutritional assistance program in the nation after the food stamp program.

The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) makes clear that, however important breakfast is for all people, especially children, only 10.8 million low-income children benefit from school breakfast, while too many millions of other eligible children miss out. Only about 50% of the same children who enjoy subsidized lunches participate in the School Breakfast Program, if it is even offered at their schools. Why the disparity? Besides the time and place of breakfast service and the stigma of the payment system in reducing participation, there are also numerous other problems that don’t affect the school lunch program. Some of these problems are bus schedules, parents’ work schedules, children’s desire to socialize on the playground, and even slowdowns in lines due to school security. Because of these and related reasons, many schools do not even participate in the School Breakfast Program.

Another program that is shortchanged is the Summer Nutrition Program. Child hunger is often at its worse during the summer months when children are out of school and do not have access to regular school meals. Summer Nutrition Programs are essential for filling the gap, but there are not nearly enough sites to fill the need. There are only 34 summer food sites for every 100 school lunch programs. Even though the majority of schools are closed during parts of the summer, any church or neighborhood program for children is eligible to take part in the Summer Nutrition Program, but, unfortunately, few either do or qualify to be a part of the program.

There are numerous reasons why some of the programs that are part of the Child Nutrition Act (the HHFKA) have been sluggish in their implementation in the past few years:

  • Lack of awareness on the part of some smaller school districts, especially in the area of getting a local entity, such as a private nonprofit, to sponsor the program
  • Communication barriers between families and schools
  • Administrative hurdles to distributing and processing information
  • State budget-driven hiring freezes, layoffs and work furloughs causing the understaffing of many child nutrition programs, even though these jobs are funded by the federal nutrition programs
  • Lack of vigorous promotion of the WIC and other child nutrition programs

In February 2014 the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report on the HHFKA that described a rather frustrating picture of school districts implementing the USDA revised nutrition standards (went into effect during the 2012-13 academic year). Among the more controversial standards is the requirement for students to select either a half cup of fruit or vegetables with their meals.

Local and state authorities told GAO researchers that the “new standards have resulted in more waste, higher food costs, challenges with menu planning and difficulties in sourcing products that meet the federal portion and calorie requirements.” GAO notes that participation in the National School Lunch Program declined to 30.7 million students from a peak of 31.8 million students during the 2010-11 academic year. However, the report also noted that the vast majority of the school lunch drop-outs were those who paid full-price for their meals while participation in the free-meal program increased significantly. These data are in line with USDA data that show that the number of low-income students approved for free meals has been increasing while the number of students paying full-price for lunch has been decreasing since 2007.

Many commentators familiar with the school lunch issues focus on the fact that all change takes time, especially when the change may be difficult. Many food service directors and members of the School Nutrition Association who have been lobbying Congress to drop a number of requirements have, in their opinion, not allowed sufficient time for the nutritional changes to become part of children’s eating habits. Nor has there been much outreach to the families involved. Interestingly, the GAO researchers, despite the negative interviews they encountered, did not recommend scaling back the nutritional requirements.

At about the same time as the GAO report, researchers with the Harvard School of Public Health published their study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine of what was occurring in the National School Lunch Program in four low-income elementary and middle schools in the Boston area. The results showed that students were eating 23% more fruit and 16% more vegetables overall and that the new nutritional standards were not causing more food waste, although much food was discarded. The levels of waste in the program, however, were similar to those found in other urban, low-income schools in Massachusetts.

Data from the Food Nutrition Service (FNS) in USDA indicate that very few schools (only .015% of schools nationwide) have dropped out of the National School Lunch Program due to struggles over providing kids healthy foods. An initiative recently enacted by FNS (USDA) is a new grant program to support “Smarter Lunchrooms,” a broad toolkit of easy-to-implement, low-cost, evidence-based strategies that increase consumption of healthier foods and decrease plate waste. Most of these ideas are based on best practices already in place in some states.

The Senate Agricultural Committee has already begun hearings to discuss re-authorizing the Child Nutrition Act (the HHFKA). The latest was held on July 23, 2014 and the key issue was whether re-authorization should include the concept of “flexibility,” which has been favored by the School Nutrition Association and groups like them. It was clear from the hearing that there are at least two distinct views about re-authorization and these involve politics.

On the one hand, some of the problems raised during the hearing (primarily by Republicans and witnesses that have sought their help) related to: 1) “flexibility” in the form of waivers, which are being sought for schools whose students are having difficulty with current standards; 2) the loss of full-price participants in the National School Lunch Program based on the 2014 GAO report lest school lunches are viewed as food for kids from low-income families; 3) meeting taste standards of students who balk at nutritional standards; and, 4) difficulty with implementation where unlicensed staff operate school kitchens.

On the other hand, many witnesses (primarily those defending the HHFKA and a number of Democrats) expressed the feeling that 1) as more kids and schools continue to successfully make the transition to the nutrition standards in HHFKA participation in the program will keep climbing and waivers will not be needed; 2) community eligibility, which covers all students in a high-poverty school district will overcome any problem of perception about full-price vs. free lunches in some schools, while trends of acceptance of nutritional standards among students will overcome those perceptions in other schools; 3) creative experimentation in menu-planning and focusing on local “favorites” as well as using the produce from school gardens would eliminate problems of students’ taste standards; and finally, 4) USDA’s technical assistance, training and continuing education programs, if sought out by school districts, should overcome problems relating to lack of licensure among school kitchen staff. All witnesses agreed that increased subsidies for school meals would be of great assistance.

Based on the foregoing sections, what are the primary goals that should be sought by nonprofits interested in solidarity with and advocacy for children’s hunger as well as good nutrition as they work with others to help in re-authorizing the HHFKA? At a minimum, they should include:

  • Strengthening the Summer Nutrition Programs so they can meet the needs of children and communities when school is out
  • Simplifying the procedures for local agencies and non-profits to sponsor Summer Nutrition Programs and increasing communication about their importance
  • Expanding the reach of the Afterschool Meal Program
  • Supporting the momentum of school breakfast expansion in every state
  • Ensuring that all schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program also participate in the School Breakfast Program
  • Eliminating the co-payment of 30 cents for breakfast, thereby removing one financial barrier for low-income families
  • Ensuring that more children have a healthy start by improving the reach of the WIC program
  • Intensifying the effort to improve “direct certification” systems
  • Improving the implementation of the “community eligibility” system initiated this past year and determining how assistance can be provided to those states and localities that experienced difficulties
  • Focusing attention on the elements of the “change process” to counter efforts to achieve “flexibility” in the form of obtaining waivers from aspects of the law, especially its nutritional components
  • Authorizing funding for grants to school districts to purchase much-needed kitchen equipment, which would support efforts to improve nutrition quality
  • Providing funding for continuing USDA’s current efforts to give technical assistance and training to school districts requesting help in implementing the Child Nutrition Act
  • Increasing funding for the next five years of the Child Nutrition Act.

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