The deadline is nearing for Congress to reauthorize federal child nutrition programs, and local anti-hunger advocates are urging lawmakers to take action.
At issue are federal school meal and child nutrition programs governed by the Child Nutrition Reauthorization and WIC Act, a law reauthorized every five years by Congress. The current reauthorization, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, expires on September 30.
Speaking at a press conference in south suburban Chicago Heights, State Rep. Will Davis (D-Hazel Crest) joined leaders with the Illinois Hunger Coalition to stress the importance of the initiatives at stake, including the School Breakfast Program, National School Lunch Program, Summer Food Services Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), among others.
For many children, "the federal nutrition programs are their only consistent source of the nutritious foods they need to grow and thrive," Katie Klus with the Illinois Hunger Coalition said at the Friday morning event, held at Respond Now, a United Way agency that provides an array of food, housing, health and others services to people in need in Cook County's south suburbs.
"We must continue to support the strong federal nutrition programs and allow the most vulnerable among us access to healthy, nutritious foods. And one way we can do that is by using our voices to urge the legislators to support a strong child nutrition act," Klus stressed.
It is likely that Congress, which has yet to approve a larger federal spending plan, will miss the target for reauthorizing the programs, according to Klus. Congress must approve a spending plan by October 1 to avoid a government shutdown.
"Right now, it's looking like there will be a delay," Klus said, adding that the nutrition initiatives could only continue as normal for a short while if the programs are not immediately reauthorized.
"But, you know, with all the other budget cuts that are happening, particularly in Illinois, (a reauthorization delay) could have an effect on child care providers, or even school districts in trying to juggle money to make ends meet and continue to serve healthy food that kids deserve," Klus noted.
Davis added that the programs in need of reauthorization play a vital role in expanding food access in Illinois, where 14.4 percent of residents lived in poverty last year, including over 593,000 children, according to new Census Bureau data released Thursday.
Davis said he has sent a letter to Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, urging the Republican to encourage federal lawmakers to act on getting the nutrition programs reauthorized.
That request comes amid the ongoing state budget battle in Illinois, during which the governor has been pressing the Democrat-dominated state legislature to approve items on his controversial pro-business, anti-union "Turnaround Agenda."
While speaking about the monthslong budget impasse in Illinois, Davis noted that some of the federal nutrition programs in question require a state match.
"Regardless of whatever the slowness that may be taking place in Washington, we need to make sure that when (a reauthorization) does pass, that we're ready to go here in the state of Illinois," Davis said.
"And in order to do that, we have to be willing to sit down and talk about the budget -- the budget, which is separate and apart from structural reforms," he continued. "Not to say that those things aren't important, but, again, the governor says we want to fix the budget, and the moment we say, 'OK, let's talk about the budget,' he brings up his Turnaround Agenda. That's not the budget."
Rauner claims his Turnaround Agenda items, which include giving local governments greater control over collective bargaining, would generate $5 billion in savings for taxpayers.
Also speaking in support of the federal child nutrition programs was Respond Now's Executive Director Carl Wolf.
Wolf -- who said 14,000 south suburban families in need visit his organization annually for food -- urged the Republican-controlled Congress to swiftly reauthorize the nutrition programs and "not hem and haw and debate over whether or not they should feed children."
"It's just one simple thing: they should feed children -- period," he said. "They need to make sure there's sufficient funding in this community, and communities all over the country, to make sure that kids are eating."