Experts in the United States shed light on child nutrition programs

Representatives from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service Southwest Region joined pediatric nutrition directors from across the state on Wednesday to discuss how to improve communication around the new Healthy Kids initiative.

The discussion came on the heels of Pulaski, Justice Barry Hyde, declaring March School Breakfast Month to highlight the role the Federal Department of Agriculture’s School Breakfast Program plays in ensuring that all Arkansas students are “healthy and ready to learn.”

The Arkansas Hunger Relief Coalition has sponsored School Breakfast Month every year since 2010, when the coalition became the lead partner for Arkansas’ No Child Hungry campaign.

This year, the coalition has partnered with the Arkansas Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Child Nutrition Unit and the Arkansas School Nutrition Association to help celebrate School Breakfast Month.

“No child should ever go hungry,” said Hyde, chief executive of the Pulaski County government. “Initiatives like School Breakfast Month and Pulaski County’s partnership with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance are just some of the ways we can raise awareness about and address child hunger.”

In June 2022, the Pulaski County Quorum Court provided $500,000 to the Arkansas Hunger Relief Coalition to facilitate the Pulaski County Hunger Reduction Initiative, which provides direct support to food pantries serving the county.

Bill Ludwig, Mark Speight, and Kim Burgess of the USDA Food and Nutrition Department, Southwest Region; Crenesha Wright of the Arkansas Food Bank; Barbara Cole, director of nutrition at the Arkansas School for the Deaf and Blind; Laura Jennings, director of pediatric nutrition at Lake Hamilton School. Mary Lee Dennis, Director of Child Nutrition at North Little Rock School District; Stephanie Walker Hines, director of child nutrition for the Little Rock School District; Lee Christian, director of child nutrition for the Fort Smith School District; Patty Parker and Vivian Nicholson of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance were also present.

Ludwig told the panel that the healthy children’s initiative would include everything the USDA Food and Nutrition Service does, from a week of school breakfast to a special supplemental feeding program for women, infants and children.

“We want to work with Arkansas on the things you’re doing that we can classify as part of the Healthy Kids Initiative,” he said.

Burgess said the Food and Nutrition Service is focused on long-term integrated policy, communications, and public health awareness initiatives that emphasize the significant impact of nutrition on child health, growth, and development.

“The Healthy Kids Initiative will focus on one population group that we believe our food security efforts can have the greatest and most life-changing impact – our nation’s infants, children and adolescents,” she said.

In the next two weeks, Ludwig said, he will meet with Kristi Putnam, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Human Services, and will share with her anything the committee would like to know.

Hines said her district would like to work through the Department of Education instead of also having to go through the USDA Southwest Regional Office of Food and Nutrition.

Hynes also mentioned that summer electronic benefit transfer cards don’t require an application for the school year if the district has community eligibility or provision, but in June and July, they’re $40.

“This is very confusing,” she said. “It’s an organizational burden, and it’s just a lot for the minuscule amount of money and time. And so we kind of want to be very honest about that and put it in place.”

Speight said the Smooth Summer Option Program, which offers a “simplified approach” to feeding hungry children by allowing school food authorities participating in national school lunch or school breakfast programs to serve, will return to a higher payment rate on July 1.

“What we care about is that the programs are run efficiently and honestly, in the best location, and wherever the governor in the state decides so, we are there to support; local politics, we try to stay out,” Ludwig said in response.

Speight said more details will be announced for next summer’s nutrition program with guidance for school districts.

The sooner software companies get applications online for free and discounted meals, Jennings said, the better for parents who need to apply. School districts will have to have the information by July.

After two years of not having to apply due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Parker said, parents are having to adjust to apply for free and reduced student meals again.

Children’s nutrition directors also wanted to know how to apply for grants for cafeteria equipment, which was supposed to go public in January.

Burgess concluded by asking managers what they would like to see from the Southwest Regional Office in terms of communication about the Healthy Children Initiative or the School Breakfast Week or the National School Lunch Week.

Hines said it should be a collaborative effort with PTAs, school boards, parents, principals and those who have direct contact with students. She said the new dietary guidelines have become “problematic” because of industry costs and parents who don’t understand them.

“Most [parents] We don’t have any conversations about this, and so we have to start spreading the message across to every other entity that kids work in, whether it’s sports, coaches, or professional development requirements, we have to get all the groups together.”

Their district communications director sent an email and Facebook notification to parents and made banners with QR codes to place in front of each school for parents to fill out applications for free and discounted lunches, Jennings said. Schools have also been able to offer a global free breakfast and application boost, and in so doing have seen their highest number of applications ever.

Burgess said the Southwest Regional Office could provide regions with a graphics media kit to use to promote apps and other new programs from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. There are currently 15 federal food assistance programs.

“Food security remains a top priority for the USDA and ensuring that all of our programs provide access to nutritious foods for those in need,” Burgess said. “The School Breakfast Program plays a critical role for students across Arkansas with an average daily participation of over 157,000 in the 2022-2023 school year. School meals are also the primary source of nutrition for more than half of children.”