Last month, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee held a hearing titled "Child Nutrition Reauthorization: Healthy Meals and Healthy Futures." As the former commanding generals of the Michigan and Arkansas National Guards who deeply understand the critical role that child nutrition programs play in our national security, we applaud Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow and Ranking Member John Boozman for their decision to prioritize this hearing.
It has now been over a decade since Congress last reauthorized child nutrition programs with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA). Reauthorization is long overdue, and the covid-19 pandemic has only underscored the urgent need to evaluate existing programs and identify ways to adapt and modernize them to serve more children in need.
Military leaders in this country have been stressing the link between child nutrition programs and national security for generations. Malnutrition emerged as a major national concern following the Great Depression, and was the reason that nearly 40 percent of those drafted during World War II were unable to serve.
Following World War II, testimony from the head of the Selective Service highlighting the issue of malnutrition was one of the primary driving forces behind congressional action to create the National School Lunch Program. The final legislation approved in 1946 included a policy statement declaring that the program was established "as a measure of national security."
Building on this foundation of advocacy, the retired generals and admirals of Mission: Readiness were actively engaged during the last successful child nutrition reauthorization effort and championed the passage of the landmark Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. This act created strong nutrition standards for school meals, ensuring that young people ate more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and consumed less sodium. It also improved standards for snacks and provided greater financing and technical support to schools providing meals and snacks to students.
It is now time to build on these successes.
Military leaders continue their commitment to strengthening child nutrition programs because 71 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds across the nation are ineligible for service, with obesity being a leading medical disqualifier. Malnutrition often manifests as obesity when there is a consistent lack of access to affordable, healthy foods, leading to the consumption of cheaper and more accessible foods that lack nutritional value.
That is why providing young people with better access to fresh and nutritious foods is so critical to military readiness and national security. We know that, in order for the military to continue to maintain a strong, all-volunteer force, we must ensure that those interested in service can qualify. However, regardless of whether a young person chooses to serve in the military, addressing child malnutrition is an important component of our overall strength as a nation.
As the Senate considers how to advance child nutrition reauthorization legislation, we urge lawmakers to prioritize the following reforms to school meal programs outlined in Mission: Readiness' Nutrition Roadmap: maintaining strong nutrition standards for school meals and snacks, increasing investments in meal infrastructure that allow schools to better distribute fresh fruits and vegetables to students, increasing federal meal reimbursement rates, expanding access to summer meals, and permanently incorporating flexibilities for school meal programs established during the pandemic.
Lawmakers must also take steps to update and expand the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). We support efforts to update food packages at least every five years, aligning with publication of USDA Dietary Guidelines; permanently authorize pandemic adaptations to WIC, such as remote enrollment and issuance of benefits; and expand WIC eligibility for children to their sixth birthday or when they enter kindergarten, whichever comes first.
We know that advancing child nutrition reauthorization legislation is no small task, and that it will require lawmakers to make difficult decisions. We understand from our own experiences as adjutants general that this will require skilled leadership, bipartisan compromise, and a careful focus on long-term success.
We thank the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee for taking the steps to begin this important work, and we look forward to working with a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers to ensure the advancement of reauthorization legislation.
Thomas G. Cutler is a retired U.S. Air Force Major General and the former Adjutant General of Michigan. William D. Wofford is a retired U.S. Army Major General and the former Adjutant General of Arkansas. They are both members of Mission: Readiness.