What is the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act?


More than 30 million children eat school lunch every day, and over 13 million eat school breakfast. School food is a major part of these children’s lives, and it can play a significant role in establishing healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime – as long as we continue to ensure that school food is a healthy choice.

In the coming months, there’s going to be a lot of talk in the media and among politicians about the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act. The CNR is a law that governs nine federal nutrition programs, and any changes to it impact millions of children, most of whom come from low-income households. That law is up for review in September, but groups on all sides of the school food debate are already lobbying to influence the decision makers. Here’s why:

What is the Child Nutrition Act?

The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act authorizes all of the federal school meal and child nutrition programs. I’m going to focus on the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, but many other programs are affected, such as WIC and the Summer Food Service Program.

Every five years, Congress reviews the laws that govern them (i.e. the CNR) to ensure that the programs are efficiently and effectively meeting the nutritional needs of our nation’s children. The current iteration of the act is the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which will expire on September 30, 2015. School lunch and school breakfast are permanently authorized (though Congress decides how to fund their operations), but some of the other programs can expire in September if Congress doesn’t act.

Where Did it Come From?

In 1946, after learning about the number of recruits turned away from the military during WWII because of malnutrition, President Harry S. Truman signed the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act, which created the National School Lunch Program. Truman wrote that it was “a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children.”

Twenty years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Child Nutrition Act, which established the School Breakfast Program. Then in 1968, Congress amended both the School Lunch Act and the Child Nutrition Act to include other federal nutrition programs, and all of the programs are now authorized by the CNR.

Who’s in Charge?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for administering all school food service programs, but they don’t make decisions about funding. Congress does that. In the House, the responsibility belongs to the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education. In the Senate, it belongs to the Subcommittee on Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Food and Agricultural Research.

What’s troubled many advocacy groups is that Congress recently used its budget approval process to introduce legislation to the USDA standards that govern school food. In May 2014, The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture passed a bill that included a waiver to allow schools to opt out of meeting USDA standards if they could show financial hardship. That bill was tabled and hasn’t been revisited, but it foreshadows possible Congressional actions during the upcoming reauthorization.

And while Congress is in charge of the reauthorization, powerful lobbying groups such as the School Nutrition Association have significant influence on the decision makers. It’s important to remember, though, that while Congress has final say on the reauthorization, and lobbyists have a strong voice in the decision-making process, so do you.

What Can We Expect in the Reauthorization Process?

Given the current climate in Congress, the lobbying forces of food corporations, and recent media attention on topics such as food waste, we can expect significant efforts to roll back progress made through the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. Some things that SNA is already requesting Congress to consider are:

  • Eliminating the requirement that every student take a serving of fruit or vegetable with every school meal
  • Eliminating the requirement that all grains be whole-grain rich and maintaining the requirement that half of grains be whole-grain rich
  • Halting further sodium reductions
  • Allowing school meal items to be sold asa la carte items at any time, so kids could buy pizza and nachos every day instead of eating balanced meals

Why Should We Care?

To quote Mark Bittman in his recent and excellent New York Times article: "Eating patterns are set when we’re young, and 31 million kids eat federally assisted school lunches. Thus the school lunch program is more than just an opportunity to feed hungry kids. It’s an opportunity to shape how kids – and grown-ups – will eat in the future. Teaching children bad eating habits means creating yet another generation of Americans who will have to break those habits; and, given what we now know about the effect of those habits on our health, that’s nothing short of criminal."

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  • Cynthia Buck on

    I am curious how many meals Mark Bittman has prepared for children. His statement that school lunches are an opportunity for teachin good eating habits is correct only halfway. Usually a childs eating habits are formed before they reach school age. The fact that we are shoving WG products and mandatory fruit and veg requirements on our students is such a waste. Unless they were fed this early in life, they are prone not too even try it. I have seen so much MONEY go in the trash that the congress requires us to put on their trays it is a shame, and it doesn’t matter how hard we try to encourage them to try it.
    Further more with the Kansas state shortage of funds and schools not being adaquately funded, fresh fruit, fresh vegetables and WG item are more expensive. Some families just don’t have the funds to purchase these items and so back to the old eating habits because of family meals. I hope that Congress will listen to SNA and make these changes.

  • Joni Polson on
    I agree about the post of teaching kids to eat healthy and break bad habits. I manage a high school kitchen and the bad part of this program is the sodium levels. For skim white it is 150 mg. sodium. Whole grain buns are 190 Mg. I have a total of 740 mg. a day to serve that leaves 400 mg. left. What I would say to USDA, Senate and Congress for a week please try to eat 740 Mg. of sodium at lunch 2 days and then eat 640 2 days Elementary Level K-5 And then eat 2 day 710 6-8grade levels. I am concerned we can not make food taste good enough to eat and kids quit eating school lunch . Yesterday I had a child pay me $2.40 cost of paid lunch here in quarters, dimes and nickels. She apologized but said they were really struggling right now and that was how she had to pay me she would have packed her lunch but they had no food in the house. This program was put in place year’s ago. But even now it is needed I see it everyday. Please allow us to make food appetizing and things our children will eat. Also how about stressing bringing back PE, more recess time and exercising daily (Maybe health classes taken every year.) This needs to be done as well as teaching them good food choices.

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