School food cheat sheet

The federal government takes on school food

June 21, 2010

School may be out for the summer, but school food is very much in session — and on the front burner for activists, celeb chefs, the First Lady, and members of Congress alike.

If you keep tabs on Michelle Obama, you probably know about Let’s Move!, her multi-faceted campaign against childhood obesity that launched in February.

Several interconnected initiatives have since spawned under the Let’s Move! umbrella, including

  • the Childhood Obesity Task Force (which aims to eliminate childhood obesity within a generation)
  • the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a $400-million annual allocation for seven years to eliminate “food deserts”
  • a foundation called Partnership for a Healthier America
  • and, most recently, Chefs Move to Schools, a USDA-led volunteer chef corps (the kick-off for which I attended recently at the White House).
Michelle Obama and a student from Bancroft Elementary, in the White House vegetable garden.

And if none of these developments is on your radar, maybe you caught an episode of “Jamie's Food Revolution,” a reality show starring British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who went on a healthy-eating crusade in Huntington, West Virginia, deemed the “unhealthiest city in America.” In just six weeks, Oliver made enemies and friends alike, but most significantly, he made headlines, bringing the issue of school lunch to prime-time television.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, there’s a big batch of child-nutrition legislation percolating. What follows is an annotated glossary of sorts, to help you navigate the current politics and policy around kids and the state of their collective diet.

Historical background

In 1946, President Harry S. Truman signed into law the National School Lunch Act, inspired in part by widespread malnutrition among WWII draft rejects. Although the federal government provided food assistance during the Great Depression under the WPA and other federal programs, this was the first permanent authorization earmarked for low-cost and free lunches to school-age children, “as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children.”

The first Child Nutrition Act was signed by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. Federal feeding programs became the purview of the Secretary of Agriculture. The School Breakfast Program was also established.

What’s on the books now

The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 (WIC stands for Women, Infants and Children), left over from the George W. Bush administration, is an omnibus piece of legislation that funds feeding and several other nutrition programs, including the aforementioned National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program.

Every five years, the Act is up for congressional review, and if no action is taken, it expires, which is what happened on September 30, 2009. At that time, the 2004 law was extended for one year. The current expiration date: September 30, 2010.

Current stats

  • NSLP’s piece of the Act’s pie in 2008: $8.8 billion
  • Number of kids getting a free or reduced lunch during the 2008-2009 school year: 31.2 million
  • Federal reimbursement rate to schools for free lunch: $2.68 per meal per student (higher in Alaska and Hawaii); for reduced lunch: $2.28
  • Net amount per student meal, after overhead and labor costs, that cafeteria staff have to work with: about $1
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What’s Barack Obama got to do with it?

In the months leading up to the reauthorization/review of the Child Nutrition Act in 2009, President Obama requested an additional $1 billion per year (putting the annual total just shy of $10 billion) for child-nutrition programs, upholding his presidential campaign pledge to end childhood hunger by 2015. The president reissued the request for child-nutrition funds in the 2011 budget.

Who’s doing what since the Child Nutrition Act expired/got extended?

In the Senate, Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas), chair of the Senate committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, sponsored the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (S. 3307).

Key components:

  • $4.5 billion in new funding over 10 years for child-nutrition programs
  • USDA regulation over nutritional content of what’s sold in vending machines
  • Money for school gardens and farm-to-school programs
  • Training for cafeteria workers
  • Financial impact on school lunch: 6 cent increase per meal

Yay or nay: Unanimously passed out of committee. Waiting to be scheduled for full Senate action.

Will federal funding for school lunches increase for the first time since 1973?

Meanwhile, on June 10 in the House, Representative George Miller (D-California), chair of the House Education and Labor committee, introduced the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act of 2010.

Key components:

  • $8 billion in new funding over 10 years for child-nutrition programs
  • Includes improved access to school meals for eligible children and expanded eligibility requirements
  • Improved food-safety requirements
  • Nutrition education
  • Financial impact on school lunch: 6 cent increase per meal

Yay or nay: Just introduced, the bill awaits scheduling for a committee vote. It has bipartisan support. Celebrity factor: TV cooking personality Rachael Ray held a press conference supporting Miller’s bill.

What Sen. Lincoln has to say about Rep. Miller’s bill: “Chairman Miller’s introduction of reauthorization legislation sends a clear message that both chambers of Congress are working to send a bill to the President’s desk before the end of the fiscal year.” (Complete statement.)

What Rep. Miller has to say about Sen. Lincoln’s bill: “Senator Lincoln’s focus on improving access and nutrition quality rightfully addresses many of the concerns I often hear from parents, stakeholders, and school leaders.” (Complete statement.)

Historic relevance

As reported on the blog Obamafoodorama, if either version (or some variation thereof) is passed, it would be the first time since 1973 that Congress has increased the federal reimbursement rate for school meals.

Additional notes

While the House and Senate weigh in on the respective reauthorization bills, the separate appropriations process will be underway, during which Congress actually approves money for authorized programs. Key players to watch include Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut), chair of the appropriations subcommittee for agriculture, and Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin), chair of the respective senate subcommittee. Together, they and their colleagues will write the actual checks for these programs.

What’s the rush?

As mentioned earlier, the Child Nutrition Act presently in effect is an extension of a 2004 law that expires on September 30. Letting the legislation expire once again would likely translate into no new changes, merely a repeat extension.

Meanwhile, back at the Department of Health and Human Services . . .

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are also up for their five-year checkup. An advisory committee has just issued its recommendations, which help set standards for all federal food programs, including the NSLP.

The public is invited to comment and provide oral testimony, which will be submitted to the Department of Health and Human Services for a public hearing on July 8.

Among the recommendations are

  • less salt
  • less saturated fat
  • fewer sugar-sweetened beverages
  • more seafood
  • more plants
  • less meat.

Additional resources

You might want to take a look at a great map from USA Today that sheds light on the number of children who receive free lunches. Also, check out the transcript from my recent Table Talk chat on school lunches, with Eddie Gehman Kohan of Obamafoodorama.

A seasoned chef and journalist, Kim O’Donnel hosts the weekly Table Talk chats on Culinate. Her cookbook, The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook, will be published in September 2010.

There are 5 comments on this item
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1. by Ed Bruske on Jun 22, 2010 at 3:04 AM PDT

Not sure why it’s particularly relevant or even meaningful to note how long it’s been since Congress has increased the reimbursement rate for subsidized lunches. The reimbursement rate increase automatically every year to adjust for cost of living, usually by an amount greater than the increase either Rep. Miller or Sen. Lincoln have proposed. Still, the average school loses 35 cents on every meal it serves. The money amounts being proposed are almost significant compared to the actual needs. More significant is the provision to give the secretary of agriculture authority to regulate all foods served in schools, which would mean federal authorities conceivably removing all sodas and junk food not just from vending machines in schools, but also the “deli” lines where corn dogs and ice cream sandwiches compete with the subsidized lunch. This is where you could see the legislation stall if the processed food lobby pushes back hard enough.

2. by debra daniels-zeller on Jun 22, 2010 at 10:09 AM PDT

I didn’t see where the recommendations specified more fresh, less processed food--it could prove problematic if schools actually had to cook fresh food again rather than ordering premade processed foods.

3. by Kim on Jun 23, 2010 at 9:56 AM PDT

For more on school lunches, I’ll point people to Ed Bruske’s excellent reporting on his blog, The Slow Cook and at Grist. Also, see Tracie McMillan's review of 'Lunch Line,' a new documentary about school food.

4. by Healthy Vending Foods on Jun 23, 2010 at 11:03 AM PDT

Yes,, I have heard about all of them. In my opinion thay all are doing a great job. We need to provide our kids with healthy food options so they don’t go towards junk food. This is an issue that must be raised everywhere - a fight against child obesity.

I am fortunate enough to work for a company that provide healthy vending machines nationwide.

5. by anonymous on Jul 30, 2010 at 5:20 PM PDT

If you’re looking for some good guidelines on how to keep your child interested in a packed lunch that is also healthy and flavorful, check out this post at Adavvy.

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