Healthy School Lunches

Last—but not least!—health- and food-related news item as we reach the close of 2010 : the much-awaited 4.5-billion-dollar-budget child nutrition bill was voted and signed into law this month in Washington, D.C.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, as it is known officially, aims to improve the national school lunch program that currently serves over 31 million children, 62 percent of whom receive a subsidized meal (for free or at a reduced price). The bill had cleared the Senate last summer and was finally approved in the House on a 264 to 157 vote.

Too bad it didn’t make front-page news. Controversial as it may be, it is a significant victory not only for First Lady Michelle Obama and her campaign against childhood obesity, “Let’s Move”, who gave huge support to the bill, but also for all the individuals and organizations who have been advocating tirelessly (and still will be) in order to improve schools’ nutrition programs.

What does the new law mean?

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture will have increased authority to regulate nutritional standards throughout schools’ food programs, including cafeterias, a la carte lines and vending machines, reducing access to sweetened drinks and junk food across the board.
  • Schools will be required to provide more whole grains, lean protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as free drinking water where meals are served.
  • Schools that comply with the new meals standards (to be issued by the USDA) will receive a non-inflationary 6-cent subsidy increase per meal for the first time in over 35 years (current meal subsidy: 2.72 dollars; according to Chef Ann Cooper, less than 1 dollar is left to invest in food itself after paying for operations and overhead).
  • The Federal government will automatically enroll Medicaid children on the free lunch program, which will benefit an extra 115,000 children (many Medicaid-certified families do not supply the proper paperwork to apply for free school lunches).
  • The Federal government will use census data to automatically enroll all students of schools in poverty-stricken communities (criteria: household income must be inferior to 185 percent of the poverty line). The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates up to 10,000 schools in the country’s poorest neighborhoods will be able to participate, starting with the 2011-12 school year.
  • An after-school supper program for at-risk youth, now offered in D.C. and 13 states, will be expanded nationally, providing an additional 21 million meals annually.
  • Section 205 makes it mandatory that meal subsidies be used to fund subsidized lunches only (currently, they fund also a significant part of paid lunches because of schools’ reluctance to raise prices).

Undoubtedly, all of this indicates that the legislators have taken a step in the right direction. Yet, the new text raises just as many questions as it is designed to answer.

  • Half of the child nutrition bill’s 4.5-billion-dollar budget (over the next ten years) comes from a cut in the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps) program. How can we expect to sustainably feed low-income school children while simultaneously depriving their families of the means to feed themselves at home? President Obama has promised that he would work ceaselessly to recover funds for SNAP.
  • The expected increase in the price of paid school lunches (as a consequence of Section 205) is expected to cause a sharp decline in the number of takers. What kind of food will these children be fed? Will they resort to the local fast-food joint instead?
  • What will 6 cents buy you? According to Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association, “in many communities 6 cents is the difference between canned and fresh produce or white and whole wheat bread.” Not everyone agrees. The National School Boards Association said “the actual increased cost of compliance” with the new meal standards is at least twice that amount.
  • Since when is an increased authority of the USDA over nutrition standards a guarantee of increased quality? The USDA, which also oversees agriculture and regulates agribusiness, has a well-known and well-documented reputation as a mouthpiece for the industrial food chain. The conflicts of interest that plague the agency are famous—what with using schools as a dumping ground for commodity foods surpluses created by the USDA farming subsidies. It’s going to have to work hard to gain the trust of all involved. Promoting CAFO meat and “fresh” produce shipped 1,500 miles away is not going to cut it as public awareness of what constitutes truly wholesome, healthy food grows.
  • Finally, what’s a healthy food program without the necessary education to go with it? Will teachers be enrolled and trained to play this new game? Will parents be invited to the conversation in order to make the necessary changes at home?

Throughout this discussion, let’s keep in mind the good, encouraging, news that the public debate about this issue is full on, at last. And this is only the beginning. So here is to a New Year 2011 where all kids in America start learning to enjoy a new kind of food, a food that nurtures them and helps them focus, be healthy, be creative and meet on an even playing field.

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