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Published: Monday, 9/20/2010

Don't forget the kids

Congress has a lot of work to do in the shadow of a towering national deficit. But some things must be funded, because the nation cannot afford to ignore its core priorities.

As politically divided as Congress is, Democrats and Republicans can and should find common ground on a short list of goals. Funding must be sufficient for national defense - which is not to say that military spending is a sacred cow or that adventures such as the war in Afghanistan should get a blank check. The nation's infrastructure needs serious attention, especially its locks and dams.

These priorities will have their proponents and detractors, but one priority deserves unanimous support: nutrition programs for children. A nation that lets some of its children go hungry cannot lay claim to greatness.

But there's more than decent sentiment involved. Children who are adequately fed are better able to learn. There's even a national security payoff:

As the Defense Department found during World War II, kids who have been undernourished aren't good candidates to pass physicals to serve in the Armed Forces as adults.

Since Congress passed a school lunch program just after that war, a large array of federal and state programs has dealt with the challenge of keeping poor children nourished. It is something of a patchwork system and could be improved. The vehicle to do that stands ready for a vote - the Improving Nutrition for America's Children Act.

This bill aims to reauthorize and amend various child-nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, more commonly known as WIC.

The legislation would expand after-school meals - currently available in 13 states, including Michigan but not Ohio - to all states, lower eligibility requirements for summer food programs for children, and enhance the quality of food in schools and pre-schools.

None of this comes cheap. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the nutrition bill would increase direct spending by $2 billion between 2011 and 2015, and by $6.5 billion between 2011 and 2020.

But it's all about choices. Guns always find funding; some money for figurative butter to help children ought to be supported. And it ought to be done without beggaring other programs, which the Senate version of the bill would do by taking money away from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food stamps.

What better investment for the future is there than children?



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