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.