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Children from the Cesar Chavez Elementary school eat lunch in Los Angeles. (Photo: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Stalled Build Back Better Act Risks Losing Billions of Funds for Child Nutrition

The BBBA would take significant steps to make healthy meals available to any child who needs them, at no cost.

An infusion of investment in nutrition would be a game-changer for millions of children whose families continue to feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. But will the US Senate come through? That's one of the overlooked questions surrounding the Build Back Better Act (BBBA), which passed in the House last November and also includes many of the Biden administration's climate priorities. As this legislation languishes in the Senate, it's critical to understand what its $10 billion in child nutrition funding could do for the nation's kids, and what will happen if the effort fails.

It expands what's called the Community Eligibility Provision (also known as CEP), which allows schools with high percentages of kids who are eligible for free meals to serve free meals to all students.

The Build Back Better Act would bring more healthy food to more kids

The BBBA would take significant steps to make healthy meals available to any child who needs them, at no cost. It expands what's called the Community Eligibility Provision (also known as CEP), which allows schools with high percentages of kids who are eligible for free meals to serve free meals to all students. Research suggests that providing all kids access to healthy meals could reduce food insecurity, positively impact nutritional status, and even improve behavior and performance—not to mention lessen the administrative burden of tracking student eligibility for schools operating these programs.

These benefits wouldn't stop when kids are out of school, either. Through the new legislation, kids across the country who are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals would be able to receive what's called "Summer EBT," which provides families with additional funds to purchase food when school is no longer in session. Although schools can also serve meals during summer, it is estimated that just 1 in 6 kids who eat school meals during the year participate in summer meal programs, leaving many kids at potential risk of hunger.

Finally, school nutrition would get more support through an additional $30 million for kitchen equipment and $250 million dedicated to grants, incentives, and technical assistance and evaluation that could help improve the nutritional quality of school meals and snacks, better coordinate nutrition education efforts, and boost procurement of fresh, local, and culturally appropriate foods.

These are all good things, and we're not the only ones who think so. Check out this list of nearly 800 national, state, and community-based organizations who signed a letter in September 2021 supporting the child nutrition and anti-poverty provisions of the Build Back Better Act.

What's next for child nutrition?

Members of Congress looking to carry forward the nutrition provisions from the BBBA may set their sights on Child Nutrition Reauthorization, a legislative process that sets nutrition standards for federal programs providing school lunches, breakfasts, snacks, and summer and after-school meals, as well as grocery staples for low-income women, infants, and children. Although these laws are supposed to be reauthorized every five years, it has been far longer since the passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, the landmark 2010 legislation that brought school nutrition standards up to speed with the science-based Dietary Guidelines for Americans for the first time in decades.

However, this path may prove even more politically fraught. As legislation that is being pursued through the Congressional budget reconciliation process, the BBBA needs just 50 votes to pass the Senate. That's a challenge in and of itself. But the reauthorization of child nutrition programs faces a higher hurdle, requiring at least 60 votes as long as the filibuster stands.

Yet even after the ups and downs of recent months—and despite the uncertainty of the current moment—the fate of the BBBA is not yet sealed. Although it's unlikely that the full BBBA first introduced in the House of Representatives will be signed into law, the magnitude and urgency of the crises our nation is facing, from public health to climate change and beyond, demand Congressional action.

Take action today and tell your senators to invest in children's health, along with clean energy and transportation, climate resilience, regenerative agriculture, and environmental justice and jobs, by passing the BBBA with all of its critical provisions intact.

© 2022 Union of Concerned Scientists

Sarah Reinhardt

Sarah Reinhardt is the food systems and health analyst for the Food & Environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In her role, she applies her academic expertise in nutrition and her practical experience in equitable and sustainable food systems to support increased consumer access to healthy foods, and the development of a comprehensive national food policy.

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