The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010: Changing School Lunches for Good

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On Monday, December 13, 2010, President Obama will sign the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 which puts 4.5 millions dollars in the hands of child nutrition programs. What's that mean? Better school lunch (and breakfast) programs. Rejoice! But what's it do?

SILVER SPRING, MD - MAY 19: U.S. first lady Michelle Obama (L) high fives with Head Start student Wendy Zacarias (2nd L)) after Mrs. Obama convinced Zacarias to drink milk during lunch as she visits New Hampshire Estates Elementary School May 19, 2010 in Silver Spring, Maryland. The school was awarded the USDA s Healthier US School Challenge Silver Award in 2009 and partnered with a school in Mexico as part of the Monarch Butterfly Sister School Program. President of Mexico Felipe Calderon is on a state visit to Washington with the first lady of Mexico. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

This has been a long time coming. This is the first time in 30 years that these programs have received an increase in funding. In fact, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said that this was "one of the most significant days in child nutrition since 1946 when school lunch program was instated."

I participated in the White House conference call to learn what this increase in funding actually means for our schools and, more importantly, our children. On the call, we got to listen to Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture; Sam Kass, Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives; and Tim Cipriano, Executive Director of Food Services for New Haven public schools (but you might know him as the Local Food Dude). They each talked about various points of interest before opening the call up to questions. All three men were audibly excited and pleased that this historic legislation has passed.

Secretary Vilsack explained some specifics of the program. These are the ones that were most striking to me.

  • Allows the USDA to set standards for school lunches, including the regular line, ala carte options and vending machines.
  • Creating school gardens!
  • Quality drinking water during meal times.
  • Increase the number of children eligible for free or reduced programs while simultaneously decreasing demonstrative time and paper pushing.
  • School audits to make sure that they are cooperating with the new requirements.

Audits! Gardens! Vending machine and ala carte changes! He stressed consistency -- meaning that a child shouldn't be able to shrug off the "regular" line (healthy option) and grab something unhealthy from the ala carte line or a vending machine. Providing kids with healthy options is key.

"When we replace sugary foods/etc with nutritional foods, we know that kids still purchase them. It doesn’t reduce the profit of vending machines."

Sam Kass then spoke about how, especially in school districts located in highly impoverished areas, children are often receiving the majority -- if not all -- of their calories from school meals. He made the point that most families are working hard to give their children healthy foods at home, and it is up to "us" (meaning this bill) to help provide the same at school. He then hinted at specific food changes that will be made.

  • More whole grains.
  • Fat free milk available.
  • More fruits and veggies.
  • Creating bonds with local farms to teach kids about food and help the local economy.

Tim Cipriano then took over the call and began to speak about the statistics regarding children in food insecure homes (1 in 4) and childhood obesity rates. Often the two go hand in hand.

“They are hungry because they lack access to these programs and the nutrition they need to grow and thrive.”

When it came time to ask questions, the increased reimbursement rate -- $0.06 -- was called into question. Cipriano combated the question by sharing what it meant -- food wise -- for schools. He gave the example that they like to offer sweet potatoes as they are a healthy option, but funds don't allow it. The $0.06 increase allows them to offer sweet potatoes three times a month instead of just once. Additionally, it means an extra serving or two of fruit per week. He said, "It can really change the scope of school meal programs."

More over, Secretary Vilsack then explained that reducing the amount of administrative paperwork allows for that time and money to be spent elsewhere, whether on food or programs to teach kids about healthy eating and living. When asked to further explain what that meant, we learned that Census information will be used to help blanket areas where there are more children living under the poverty rate and in food insecure homes. This removes the need -- and stigma -- for a child to take home a paper application, have their parents fill out information about income and make sure it gets back to the school.

There was a question about banning school bake sales, a mention of Sarah Palin and another bit of worry about whether or not parents could take cupcakes in for school parties. We were assured that this program is about reformatting how we think about and deal with school meals and options available during school hours. There's no Super Secret Agenda to ban bake sales for fundraising after school or cupcakes to celebrate birthdays.

I was most interested in the audit process schools will be undergoing to make sure they are adhering to the new requirements. The answer I received was satisfactory. The audits -- which already exist -- will now happen every three years and will allow for greater consistency. Not only will they look at the food issues (unhealthy ala carte items!), but they will also make sure that schools are making sure that qualified kids have proper access -- and that kids who don't need the extra subsidy aren't taking it from someone who does. I know some local school districts who won't survive the new requirements come audit time. Do you?

Want to read or learn more? Don't forget to read the bill itself, then read what other bloggers are saying.

Lastly, Fed Up With Lunch made mention of the bill passing. But if you're not following this blog, do so now. She's eating a school lunch every day in 2010... and documenting it. Mmm.

In case you're interested, remarks from the President and First Lady, as well as the bill signing, will be streamed live at whitehouse.gov/live at 10:25am ET on Monday, December 13th.

What are your thoughts on the passing of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010? What are your hopes for your local school lunch program?


Contributing Editor Jenna Hatfield (@FireMom) blogs at Stop, Drop and Blog and The Chronicles of Munchkin Land. She is a freelance writer and newspaper photographer.

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