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Feeding Hungry Kids: Child-Nutrition Programs to Come Before Congress

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Monday, August 3, 2015   

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - As Congress weighs the fate of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, advocates want to ensure school meal and other programs can continue to make inroads against hunger in Missouri and nationwide.

One of the most hotly debated portions of the legislation when it was reauthorized five years ago, and still today, was its changes to nutrition standards for schools, part of ongoing efforts to fight child obesity.

Glenn Koenen, chairman of Empower Missouri's hunger task force, says while some kids and parents have complained about the new guidelines, it will take time and effort to change the nation's eating habits.

"There's all this pressure to weaken the nutrition requirements, which would be sending the wrong message to the kids," says Koenen. "In school you're supposed to learn and one thing you can learn is every day at lunch, eating healthy is good for you."

While nutrition experts say healthier food helps promote a healthy learning environment, some lawmakers have argued it isn't the government's place to decide what kids should eat.

The legislation also would expand access to Summer Nutrition Programs and provide a grocery credit for qualifying low-income families to purchase food during the summer months. The current law expires on September 30.

In Missouri, only about 10 percent of the kids who receive free and reduced-priced lunches during the school year take part in summer feeding programs. Gary Wells, community partnership director with Operation Food Search, says even where summer meal programs do exist, they are not as robust as they should be.

"Often it ends at the end of June, so you still have the month of July and the first part of August where these kids have to figure out what they can do to eat," says Wells.

Koenen says while many people consider summer to be a relaxing, carefree time, he hopes lawmakers and others will think about the additional burden the season places on the state's low-income families.

"Their child-care costs go through the roof, and their food costs explode because they're having to replace 10 meals a week the kids are getting with breakfast and lunch programs," says Koenen.

According to government estimates, nearly 31 million children nationwide eat school lunches every day, and another 14 million eat school breakfasts.


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