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Originally published Friday, July 16, 2010 at 2:44 PM

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Guest columnist

Congress should feed hungry kids when need is greatest

The recession has forced cutbacks in many programs that help feed children whose families can't. Guest columnist Linda Stone argues that federal investment in nutrition programs is a good investment in ensuring children are health and ready to learn.

Special to The Times

IMAGINE for a moment the sounds in a child's classroom: Do you hear the calming voice of a teacher reading a story? Is there a buzz of children's voices around a hands-on science project? What you probably don't hear is the sound of rumbling, hungry tummies. But for two out of every five children in public school, it's an all-too-familiar sound that threatens their ability to do their best in school every day.

At the start of school last year, parents of more than 433,000 children in our state signed them up for free or reduced-price meals.

The breakfasts, lunches and snacks kids get in school help them thrive in the classroom. It's nourishment that can make the difference between an energetic, attentive, high-achieving child and one who's more likely to miss school because he's sick or to distract a teacher because she's too hungry to focus.

Right now Congress has a once-every-five-year opportunity to improve the quality of school, child-care and summer meals and make them available to more children. We support the call that President Obama and anti-hunger experts have made for Congress to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act with an increase of $1 billion per year over 10 years.

That boost — less than 5 percent over the $22 billion spent on federal child-nutrition programs in 2009 — could pave the way for many positive changes, including:

• Expanding school breakfast, after-school snack and summer meal programs;

• Streamlining the process for signing up all children in high-poverty areas for school meals;

• Improving the nutritional quality of food that schools serve.

Two child-nutrition reauthorization bills are pending in Congress. The Senate's Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 proposes $4.5 billion over the next decade. The House's Improving Nutrition for Children Act of 2010 gets us closer to what kids need: $8 billion to $9 billion over 10 years.

The Children's Alliance and our partners in the Washington State Child Nutrition Reauthorization Coalition like the House's proposal to make more kids eligible for school meals using paperless enrollment for children who qualify for free and low-cost health insurance.

The House bill would also sign up all children in the foster-care system for school meals and expand a promising pilot program championed by U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., that would increase access to after-school snacks and summer meals through a streamlined year-round program.

But neither bill has a strong enough focus on summer meals that help children in low-income families stay nourished when school is out. The recession has forced many summer meal providers to cut back just as more families are struggling to feed their children.

Curbing summer hunger is a key part of our strategic plan to end childhood hunger in Washington by 2015. The Children's Alliance brought together a broad cross-section of organizations, businesses and community groups around an achievable goal: to end childhood hunger by surrounding children with nutritious food where they live, learn and play.

A strong Child Nutrition Reauthorization with $10 billion in new investment over the next ten years will move us closer to our goal. The critical time is now: We ask Washington's congressional delegation to make sure the Senate and House move this critical legislation before they take their summer break in August.

It's time we do a better job of making sure that all children — especially our most vulnerable kids, who are disproportionately those in low-income families and communities of color — are well-fed, healthy and primed for success in school. We owe it to them to do all we can to keep them from going hungry.

Linda Stone is senior food-policy coordinator at the Children's Alliance, a public-policy advocacy organization that works at the state and federal level to ensure that all kids have what they need to thrive.

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