by Sarah Gold
It’s not much of a debate: most school lunches are pretty unappetizing. I remember how devastating it was when my parents sent me to school with lunch money instead of a packed lunch because that meant some sort of mush on a bun, congealed mac n’ cheese, or soggy pizza. I usually took a few bites, threw it out, and went back for the ice cream. And after talking to a few teachers, it appears not much has changed in the 20 years since I was in elementary school – except maybe the availability of more fried food and sugar laden is greater than ever before. I was one of the lucky kids to have a healthy packed lunch most days.
More than 31 million students participate in the National School Lunch Program and over 11 million take part in School Breakfast, which is why the recent passing of the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (a.k.a Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill) was so important.
President Obama signed the final version of the bill with his wife and the students of Harriet Tubman Elementary by his side on December 13th—a significant step towards healthier food in schools and the fight against both childhood hunger and obesity. This bill is revisited every five years and reauthorizes child nutrition programs such as School Meal Programs and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The School Breakfast and Lunch programs are permanently authorized, but other school nutrition programs such as Summer Food Service Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program, and WIC benefits must be reauthorized. Reauthorization also allows for the Federal government to look at what’s working and what can be improved. This particular bill, which includes an additional 4.5 billion in funding over the next ten years, has taken center stage due to the First Lady’s active efforts to reverse the effects of child hunger and obesity, a problem that stems from the same root cause: lack of access to affordable, healthy food.
So, what’s going to change?
Perhaps one of the most noteworthy amendments is the additional six cents provided to schools for each federally funded meal. While this doesn’t seem like a lot (really, what can six cents buy?), it is the first real reimbursement increase in thirty years (excluding normal inflation increases). And while I applaud such an historic change, I am somewhat skeptical of how much this will really affect schools’ ability to provide fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthier options considering it costs, on average, 21 cents per cup of bananas and 28 cents per cup of apples.
Another potentially big win is that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will have the authority to set nutritional standards for all food sold in schools. This includes competitive foods such as food sold in vending machines, but it does not include non-school provided food such as bake sales. Advocacy groups, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, consider this a monumental step towards reducing obesity because the nutritional standards have not been updated in 30 years. In addition, schools will be audited every three years to ensure compliance with nutritional standards. Hopefully this will result in a considerable decrease in junk food available in schools. However, what these requirements will be and what is considered “junk food” is still to be determined over the next 18 months. There is talk to build more local farm to school networks in effort to promote use of local foods and improve the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as to improve nutritional quality of commodity foods (e.g.. corn and cannedd fruits and vegetables) in schools. Farm to school programs have proven successful on a small scale and increasing the prevalence of such programs has the potential to result in lasting change in schools, particularly if they include educational components.
The bill will also extend benefits to an additional 115 thousand students, increase funding for summer and after school programs, reduce some of the red tape for accessing benefits, and improve monitoring of the programs.
What about funding?
Not surprisingly, much of the hold up for passing this bill earlier this year was funding. A predominant concern, especially for liberal democrats, was the source of funding – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps, were said to be cut to finance this bill.
“Why would you rob Peter to Pay Paul?” was a common argument made against this option. In many cases you’d be reducing SNAP benefits from the same people who are receiving the school lunch, which seems counterintuitive. In the end, the money has to come from somewhere, and some of it will likely come from SNAP. However, according to his speech when signing the bill, President Obama recognizes the detriment and he is “committed to working with them [Congress] to restore these funds.”
Will this actually effect change in the school meals?
Many hurdles lie ahead. For starters, food service workers will require training and cafeteria kitchens will need a serious overhaul since most don’t have the necessary tools to prepare meals from raw ingredients. Another complication is the Child Nutrition Commodity Program, which provides schools with surplus goods such as canned fruits and vegetables. Changes will need to be implemented soon and schools will begin to work out the kinks. In the meant time, I am eagerly awaiting the new nutritional guidelines and hoping for some real adjustments.