Katz: Congress Can Ensure Nutrition Act’s Success

Posted July 11, 2010 at 3:05am

The Child Nutrition Act must be reauthorized by Sept. 30. It is an all-important kitchen table of government programs that address the nutritional deficits, access to school meals and the need to combat hunger among our children — a number that has spiked because of the recession.

[IMGCAP(1)]The Child Nutrition Act gives Congress the opportunity to affect the health of millions of Americans, and if any Senator or Representative doubts this, I urge you to share a meal with a student in your local schools. Their next spoonful depends on your vote.

According to Pat Nicklin, managing director for the nonprofit organization Share Our Strength, “Hunger is at record-levels: Nearly one in four kids in America face hunger. In fact, we recently reported that 62 percent of teachers see children who regularly come to school hungry because they don’t get enough to eat at home. Reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act will increase the number of kids eligible for school meals; expand after school and summer meals programs; and pilot innovative state projects to improve the way we feed children at risk of hunger.”

Sociologist Janet Poppendieck writes in the book “Free for All: Fixing School Food in America,” “All children in American schools are ‘eligible’ to participate in the school lunch and breakfast programs, but not all students have access to them.”

Megan Lott, associate policy director for the Community Food Security Coalition, sees significant legislative progress today precisely because “the Senate bill secured a focus on improving the nutritional quality of school meals, while the House bill, entitled Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act, strikes a better balance by also focusing on access to meals available in schools.”

The most visible evidence of the need for access to meals with nutritional value comes from the irony that there is too much access to food lacking in nutritional value. What has been termed the obesity-hunger paradox are the myriad health problems and dietary life cycles resulting directly from the overavailability and overconsumption of unhealthy quantities of fatty fast food and sugary soft drinks. The McDonald’s Big Mac and the 7-Eleven Super Big Gulp have their own Facebook pages!

In a recent article describing the “Bronx Paradox,” the New York Times reported that “a recent survey found that the most severe hunger-related problems in the nation are in the South Bronx, long one of the country’s capitals of obesity. Experts say these are not parallel problems persisting in side-by-side neighborhoods, but plagues often seen in the same households, even the same person: the hungriest people in America today, statistically speaking, may well be not sickly skinny, but excessively fat.”

First lady Michelle Obama, who has launched the Let’s Move campaign to help end childhood obesity in a generation, recently convened more than 500 chefs on the South Lawn of the White House to help work with schools and improve the nutrition, desirability and consumption of school meals.

In attendance and helping the first lady and schoolchildren pick vegetables from the White House garden was José Andrés, the Washington, D.C.-based Spanish chef known for his “Made in Spain” PBS television program. Chef Andrés has placed a message urging support of the Child Nutrition Act on the menus at his restaurants, and the tapas or small-plate theme of his restaurant Jaleo belies a bigger concern that Andrés recognizes because he began his career as a cook in the Spanish navy.

“Child nutrition and obesity are national security problems for the United States,” he says. “Do people realize how many Army recruits are being turned away because they are overweight?”

The 2010 report “Too Fat to Fight: Retired Military Leaders Want Junk Food Out of America’s Schools,” issued by the nonprofit organization Mission: Readiness, details these concerns. In the report, retired Gen. John Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, states: “Every month hundreds of otherwise excellent candidates for military service are turned away by recruiters because of weight problems. Since 1995, the proportion of recruits who failed their physical exams because they were overweight has risen by nearly 70 percent. We need to reverse this trend, and an excellent place to start is by improving the quality of food served in our schools.”

As critical mass builds for support of the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, the awareness of the need is coupled with the realization that the success of the act is increasingly dependent on effective collaboration between nonprofit organizations and federal, state and local government and school systems.

President Barack Obama has included $400 million in the fiscal 2011 budget to bring better food to impoverished urban communities, but his funding is modeled on proven approaches in Pennsylvania and other states in which the efforts must be grounded at the local level, often creating and coordinating a farm-to-table network where no other supply chain exists.

Congress should recognize these realities and consider the contrast between the governmental centricity of legislation and the highly distributed way it will be implemented. Like other recent legislation triggering large funding requirements, Congress has achieved greater control, and more importantly greater confidence and accountability for how a statute and its programs are working, when it creates affirmative monitoring and reporting requirements in legislation.

In the Child Nutrition Act, Congress should consider giving the Government Accountability Office the affirmative and proactive responsibility to monitor and report on what happens after the bill is reauthorized and the challenging work across government and society begins. The GAO’s institutional knowledge and expertise has been demonstrated in more than a dozen recent reports about the very federal programs and problems across society that are the focus of the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization, and if asked, it can keep its trained eye on the act in ways that Congress itself cannot.

Steven L. Katz writes about food and public policy. He served as counsel to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and was senior adviser to David Walker, the former comptroller general of the United States.