A few years ago in a display of bipartisan support, Congress directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand free school meals to more low-income children during the school year and to ensure the food we serve our children at school provides the nutrition they need to grow up healthy and strong.

The 2010 law, called the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, included a new policy called the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows schools with high numbers of low-income families to serve free meals to all students, ensuring more kids benefit from nutritious school meals without any stigma. This change, along with other aspects of the law, has had hugely positive effects on low-income children in Detroit and Flint. In fact, Detroit has expanded universal free school meals to all 127 schools serving 66,125 students. In the Flint area, at least 28 schools serving 144,000 students are eligible to take advantage of this option to provide free school meals to all students, and many are already doing so.

The importance of our nation’s federal nutrition programs was underscored recently with the unacceptably high levels of lead in the Flint water supply. More than 8,000 children under age 6 are at risk of serious, and potentially life-long, health and developmental consequences. One way to mitigate the effects of lead exposure is through nutrition, especially foods high in Vitamin C, calcium and iron. Although no food can undo lead exposure completely, ensuring proper nutrition is critical to mitigating lead absorption in the body.

At USDA, we manage school breakfast and lunch programs, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (known as WIC), SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), child care food programs, and programs for children in the summer to help them access a free, nutritious meal when schools are closed.

Today, about 7,500 Flint residents — including 1,500 women, 1,800 infants, and 4,250 children up to age 5 — participate in WIC. USDA is temporarily allowing WIC to help women and children access lead screening tests at WIC clinics and get access to ready-to-feed infant formula. Today’s WIC food package is scientifically proven to promote positive health and development outcomes in children.

For older children, USDA is working with the state of Michigan to help more eligible schools in Flint utilize the Community Eligibility Provision to offer free meals to all students, making it easier for all children to participate.

Today, during my visit to Flint with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a champion of child nutrition, I am announcing a brand new effort for Flint’s children called the Summer EBT Program. The program will provide Flint families with a small monthly stipend to buy food for their children in the summer months when school is out of session — food that may help mitigate the impacts of lead absorption. The program has been offered before in Detroit, and today we are also announcing that even more children in Detroit will be served this summer.

However, even in the face of the Flint crisis, some in Congress are discussing how to do away with or severely weaken these very programs.

Many of the improvements to child nutrition — like ensuring school meals include whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and less sodium and saturated fat — were made when Congress came together to support the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Since then, the United States has seen positive results in child nutrition.

Recently, Stabenow and Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas forged another bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate that ensures the families in Flint and Detroit won’t be forgotten. Their proposal continues to protect the country’s most vulnerable children without rolling back the huge gains we’ve made in the fight against obesity.

I encourage Congress to strengthen child nutrition programs without delay because nothing is more important than providing a safe, healthy future for our children.

Dr. Kevin Cocannon is the USDA’s undersecretary for food and nutrition services.

Read or Share this story: