Creating opportunities for children’s access to organic foods

Approximately once every five years, Congress drafts legislation to reauthorize federal feeding programs that serve children. Commonly referred to as the Child Nutrition Act, the legislation authorizes and funds the national school breakfast and lunch program, after school snacks, the summer feeding program and meals served in daycare centers.

Children who meet certain criteria based on federal poverty levels are eligible for free or reduced price meals subsidized by the government. Additionally, the Act includes funding for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which provides low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women as well children and infants under the age of five who are nutritionally at-risk with supplemental food assistance.

The impact of these programs on the nutrition of children is profound. An estimated 30 million schoolkids participate in the school lunch program daily, and nearly half of all infants born in the U.S. receive assistance through the WIC program. This presents a tremendous opportunity to expand access to organic food for kids and underserved populations.

Over the past decade, innovation, growth and research have made organic more accessible than ever, and an emerging choice not only in homes, but also in schools and institutions. The last time Congress reauthorized the child nutrition programs was in 2010 when it passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. As part of former first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative to reduce childhood obesity, the law was the first time in decades that the nutrition standards for school meals were comprehensively updated. Schools have made great strides over the past few years to improve offerings of fresh fruits and vegetables and become less reliant on overly processed foods that are high in sugar and sodium. Federally funded programs such as Farm-to-School have supported local farmers while also providing nutritious food to kids and educating youth on where their food comes from.

In the last reauthorization bill, the Organic Trade Association secured authorization for an organic food pilot program under which school food authorities could explore opportunities to build relationships with local organic companies, farms and food providers to make organic foods available to schoolchildren. This pilot program was authorized at $10 million per year through appropriations, but was never funded by Congress. The Organic Trade Association is currently working with members of Congress to renew and update the organic food pilot program, and secure mandatory funding for it as part of the reauthorization process.

The Organic Trade Association is also working for the first time to reduce barriers and expand access to organic food within the WIC program. Access to healthy organic foods is especially important for pregnant women and children under the age of five during the critical stages of development. In our most recent survey of U.S. families’ attitudes toward organic, all buying groups—ranging from Heavy to Light users of organic—indicated that baby food was the most important category to choose for buying organic.

Food targeted to kids was also among the categories most important for buying organic. Millennial parents are now the biggest group of organic buyers in the U.S. Over 25% of Millennials in America are parents, and that figure is expected to jump to 80% in the next 10–15 years.

WIC participants are provided monthly stipends to purchase certain nutrient-rich foods such as fresh produce, dairy, infant formulas and baby food to supplement their diets. However, the federal government sets guidelines that dictate cost and nutrition requirements for what food can be included in the WIC program. States largely administer the program and have the discretion to choose which specific products are included. Organic fruits and vegetables are currently offered as part of the WIC cash voucher program in all states, but beyond that most states either prohibit or do not offer many organic options within WIC.

The Organic Trade Association recently formed the Child Nutrition Task Force to develop policy proposals to expand organic options in school lunches and WIC as part of the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization.

The organic industry is committed to providing healthy and safe food to all Americans. Expanding organic options within federal feeding programs will not only help organic farmers and businesses generate increased benefits to their local economies, but will also help meet the changing demographics and rising consumer demand for organic products. //