The Obama administration has pledged to end childhood hunger in the U.S. by 2015. Meeting that goal will depend on whether Congress expedites or undermines this ambitious endeavor. And it has to act soon.

The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act (CNR) is up for renewal, probably by May. As its name suggests, the bill funds all federal programs that feed children and eligible adults, including school breakfast and lunch, the summer feeding program, the Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) program, and the Child and Adult Care Feeding Program (CACFP).

The bill’s wide scope has impacts far beyond child nutrition and hunger. It affects public health, education, and physical, mental, and social development. The reauthorization process presents an opportunity to strengthen these critical programs so that they better meet our children’s needs. It only gets renewed once every five years.

The nation needs our federal food programs expanded to meet the nutritional needs of all growing children. The school lunch program, the backbone of our country’s effort to properly nourish kids, has been failing for too long. We feed kids tater tots, pizza, and Coke at school. Then we wonder why the incidence of behavioral problems among school children has skyrocketed and why one in three children born after 2000 is predicted to get diabetes. Many schools have vending machines in their cafeterias.

Selling unhealthy snacks not only damages children’s health and learning capacity in the short run, but undermines long-term efforts to teach nutrition and health. We must instead invest in universal free school breakfast and lunch, available to all children, and in measures to encourage healthy eating and eliminate unhealthy options in schools.

Kids’ success can be determined as early as birth. Studies show that babies and toddlers don’t develop as quickly or as well if they are hungry and malnourished, and that low birth-weight is often a predictor of a lower IQ. WIC must cover more mothers and include better provisions for purchasing fresh produce, so that more women are able to access good nutrition during pregnancy and in the critical first years of their babies’ lives.

We need a Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act that invests in collaborations with local farms and markets. Congress must encourage sustainability and respect for the local environment. Wherever public procurement is involved, we must move past the notion of “lowest price” to “best value,” prioritizing purchasing from local and regional farmers who use ecologically sound farming practices.

Food service workers, food processors, family farmers, and farm laborers also need to be treated fairly. The government should require that this workforce be entitled to fair labor practices: They must be paid a living wage—including adequate benefits—and have access to the protections labor unions provided.

We need well-fed children to foster a healthy, productive society, and we should train and compensate those who grow, harvest, and prepare their meals in accordance with the importance of their role.

Laura Rubin is a former National Hunger Hotline assistant for WhyHunger.

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