06/29/2011 10:34 am ET | Updated Aug 29, 2011

While We're Waiting for the Peace Dividend, Let's Use the Children's Dividend

The prospect of reduced military expenditures in Afghanistan has already set off speculation about the purposes to which a so-called "peace dividend" might be employed to support domestic needs. A robust debate about resetting domestic priorities would be welcome. But there's another kind of budgetary dividend already at hand and we've been missing the opportunity to take advantage of it.

I'm talking about what might be called the Children's' Dividend -- the more than a billion dollars left untapped each year from the nearly $100 billion allocated for childhood hunger and nutrition programs, because of the unacceptable gap in the number of poor children who are eligible but not enrolled or participating.

More than 20 million children in America get a free or reduced price school lunch but only 9 million get breakfast and only 3 million get summer meals when the schools are closed. If we increased the national average of 16 percent for summer participation to 40 percent, still well under half, we would drive $313 million to the states in reimbursements for milk purchased from local dairies, bread bought from local bakeries, and other expenses. The same holds true for the Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Nutrition program and SNAP.

Although the federal government pays for this critical need, through programs that have a long record of bipartisan support and effectiveness, Governors and Mayors hold the keys to the lockbox where this Children's' Dividend resides. They have the power to eliminate barriers to participation and, working through public-private partnerships, increase awareness of and participation in these programs. But even many policy makers and elected officials are unaware that these funds are available -- a testament to how voiceless are the potential beneficiaries: low income children who don't belong to organizations, make political contributions, or have lobbyists. That's the real reason a Children's Dividend exists!

Before we engage in a predictably partisan and divisive battle over how to use any future peace dividend, we ought, for the sake of our children, use the dividend we already have so that we can end childhood hunger, and in so doing improve health and education outcomes, and restore America's competitiveness in the world.