Two weeks ago, with the First Lady looking on, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids act in a special ceremony at the Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Washington D.C. The passage marked an important victory for Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign, and President Obama joked that had he not managed to get it passed, he would have been sleeping on the couch. But other than a well-rested President, what effect will this legislation have on the day-to-day life of the nations schoolchildren?
The bill received criticism from Republicans who opposed increased spending on social programs and from Democrats who objected that funding was approved at the expense of the food stamp program. Nonetheless the bill was passed by the Senate in a unanimous vote and received enough bipartisan support to pass in a last minute push by Congress. The Obama administration had previously assured critics that they would work to restore full funding to the food stamp program.
The White House released a before and after example of a school menu to demonstrate the effect of the new legislation. Meals such as cheese pizza and tater tots were replaced with whole-wheat cheese pizza and baked sweet potato fries. The difference may not be huge, but it's an important first step.
Since President Truman signed the first National School Lunch Program in 1946, participating schools have been granted a rebate on meals served and subsidies for other meal related expenses, as long as they meet federal requirements for nutrition and offer low cost or free meals to qualifying students. Besides revising standards for nutrition in regular meals, the current bill also revoked rebates for prepackaged and vending machine items and mandated a change to what is allowed in vending machines. While the standards are still going through the approvals process, it is expected that fruit and yogurt cups will replace cookies and candy, and fruit juice, iced tea and milk will replace soda.
Finally, the bill increased rebates to schools by six cents per meal, with the expectation that the increased funds would be directed towards healthier options. While this struck many commentators as a negligible increase, Margo Wootan, the director for nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, wrote that the budgetary benefits of the bill go far beyond the six-cent increase.
Wootan pointed out that there are a number of no-cost reforms that will mandate that schools have increased funds and give increasing priority to healthy meals in their budget. For example, the bill will make more funds available by requiring schools to charge more per meal to students who can afford it. It will also require the USDA to take a closer look at the expenses that schools list under meal preparation. Wootan noted that janitorial services and other maintenance costs are often disproportionately charged to the meal program because school administrators see meal reimbursements as a catch-all opportunity to fund other programs. If administrators are no longer able to charge unrelated expenses to the meal program, more funds will be freed up for healthy food.
The part I'm most excited about is the funding included in the bill for farm to school programs. These programs encourage schools to source ingredients from local farms, and create opportunities for children to learn about where their food comes from and how it grows. It's important for parents, teachers and administrators to understand that supporting children's health is a total package: we need to make healthy options available to them, we need to be good examples ourselves, and we need to help them make the connections between the health of the land, the health of their food and the health of their body, mind and spirit. Big Island teachers are already leading the way in the effort to teach children how to grow and prepare healthy, delicious food. I hope this bill will raise the profile of efforts like theirs, and help others understand that health and nutrition are integral and essential parts of any child's education - in the cafeteria and beyond.