Children's Voice Oct/Nov 2005

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New Legislation Expands the Availability of Meals to School Children

With yet another school year beginning, it's important to remember that children learn better on a full stomach. Research shows children are more attentive in class and have better attendance and fewer disciplinary problems when they eat a proper breakfast and lunch.

Thanks to the National School Lunch and the School Breakfast Programs, millions of children from low-income families are fed every day in school--about 43 million children receive free or reduced-price breakfast, and some 16 million receive free or reduced-price lunch on a typical school day, according to the Food Research and Action Council (FRAC).

Last year, President George W. Bush signed into law the Child Nutrition and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Reauthorization Act, providing numerous changes in the administration and operation of the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. Some of the changes became effective during the 2004-2005 school year; others will be phased in over the next several years. Many of these changes expand eligibility to more students, such as homeless students, and streamline application and verification procedures.

"It is a sign of how fundamentally important, effective, and popular these child nutrition programs are that, in an otherwise politically heated environment, Congress paused to unite in support of feeding our nation's children," said FRAC President James Weill following passage of the legislation. "This legislation will provide greater access and improve the nutritional quality of meals served in schools and out-of-school programs for many low-income children. Kids will be healthier, do better in school, and be better cared for in afterschool, summer, and child care programs."

In addition to helping children learn, federal food programs have been shown to be part of the solution to obesity, not the problem. According to FRAC, recent studies indicate that WIC helps reduce obesity among preschoolers, and food stamps, school lunch, and school breakfast reduce obesity among low-income school-aged girls.

Highlights of the reauthorization legislation include:
  • Automatic eligibility for free meal benefits under the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs has been extended to all children who are homeless, runaway, or migrant. Even if a child or youth moves into permanent housing and is no longer homeless or migrant, eligibility is effective for the remainder of the school year and up to 30 days into the next school year.

  • Eligibility for free and reduced-price school meals will continue throughout the entire school year for all eligible students. Schools can continue a student's eligibility for up to 30 days into the following school year, or until a new eligibility determination is made.

  • The act allows more children from military households to receive free and reduced-price school meals by excluding housing vouchers from being counted as income when determining school meal eligibility. This exclusion applies only to households living in housing covered by the Military Housing Privatization Initiative.

  • Beginning with the 2005-2006 school year, low-income families will only have to complete one application for all of the children in the household to receive free or reduced-price school meals, instead of separate forms for each child.

  • If a family does not respond to requests for documenting eligibility for free or reduced-price meals, the school or district is required to make at least one follow-up attempt to contact the family before terminating their meal benefits. Schools and districts can contract with community-based organizations to do this follow-up.

  • Application forms and all communication verifying a student's eligibility must be in a language that parents can understand. Households can submit applications electronically.

  • A pilot program promoting healthy eating habits by providing fresh fruits and vegetables to schools was expanded and made permanent. The 2002 Farm Bill provided $6 million for the Fruit and Vegetable Pilot Program for the 2002 - 2003 school year at 25 elementary and secondary schools in Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio, and in seven schools in the Zuni Pueblo of New Mexico. Effective October 2004, $9 million was made available to continue the program for schools that were part of the original pilot, and to expand the program to schools on two Indian reservations and in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Washington State.
For more detailed information about changes under the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, visit the FRAC website.

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