“We know that the program works, and we want to expand it,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Many children who are eligible for free and reduced lunch meals aren't enrolled in the program — this is going to help ensure that they receive the benefits, too.”
The initiative will be formally introduced at an event Wednesday morning, organized to raise awareness about the importance of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other federally funded nutrition programs.
Millions of children from low-income families that qualify for Medicaid aren't enrolled in the free and reduced-price meals program, according to the Agriculture Department.
States will need to apply to participate in the new effort. The Agriculture Department plans to initially work with about five states in the 2016-2017 school year, before expanding to 20 the following year. Eventually, the hope is to extend the program nationally.
The USDA has already tested a smaller-scale version of the new program in seven places, including New York City, where the program has led to a 7 percent increase in enrollment.
“That's just for free lunches,” Vilsack said. “The new expanded program is going to include reduced-price lunches too, so we know that that 7 percent number is only going to go up.”
The move is part of an ongoing effort by the Obama administration to alleviate hunger and food insecurity — which affects nearly 1 out of every 7 American households and, as a result, roughly 15 million children in the United States — and promote healthier eating habits.
“We have been focused on food and nutrition issues since the start,” said Cecilia Munoz, assistant to the president and director of the Domestic Policy Council. “We believe that the evidence is incredibly compelling that if you want kids to succeed, you need to make sure that they eat sufficiently.”
In 2010, President Obama signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which overhauled school lunch and breakfast programs by updating nutrition standards and increasing federal reimbursement rates for schools that comply with the new recommendations. First lady Michelle Obama, meanwhile, has arguably been the school nutrition movement's most public proponent. She was an instrumental player in the implementation of new health standards in 2012, which mandate minimum fruit, vegetable and whole grain servings, as well as maximum sodium, sugar and fat contents. And she helped inspire new rules that ban schools from serving soda and sugary drinks.
As part of Wednesday's announcement, the Obama administration also shared its plan to include a provision in the president's 2017 budget, which would allocate $12 billion over 10 years to the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children (Summer EBT) program, which helps supplement food purchases during the summer, when children are out of school. Currently, fewer than 4 million of the nearly 22 million low-income children who are enrolled in the school-lunch program receive free and reduced-price meals when school is out of session. The Summer EBT is meant to bridge that gap, and would serve as an add-on to other government assistance programs.
It's unclear whether the budget item, which will have to be approved by Congress, or the pilot program, which will be enacted by executive action, will meet any opposition. Many conservatives have criticized the federal-assistance programs, which they argue are riddled with fraud and abuse, despite official reports that suggest fraud rates are at historical lows. But Vilsack said he is confident the newly announced efforts will be met with bipartisan support.
“I don't think we're going to see much resistance,” he said. “It's pretty hard to position yourself against feeding kids, politically speaking.”