Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently held a conference call to lay out the administration’s priorities for reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. Broad brush, little detail. But it’s clear they’ve got their mind around the issues and will be seeking some important changes.
We’re dealing with twin problems, Vilsack said. On the one hand, about 16.5 million children live in households that can’t always afford a nutritious diet. In fact, more than 500,000 simply don’t get enough to eat. On the other hand, a third of all children are overweight or obese.
So what does the administration propose?
- “Better access to resources,“ i.e., “more creative and innovative” processes for enrolling children in nutrition programs. These could include automatic enrollment in school meal programs when a family is approved for food stamps and/or TANF.
- A “robust increase” in school breakfast participation. One focus here seems to be getting more schools to offer breakfast. The Secretary mentioned reimbursement rates and providing commodities, apparently recognizing that costs are a major deterrent.
- Improved nutritional quality. “Too much salt, sugar and fat,” the Secretary said. “Empty calories.” They’d like to “encourage” schools to improve, e.g., through funding training for food service professionals and an extension of the food service equipment grants in the economic recovery act. No mention of new nutrition standards.
- Correct, complete information on what’s being served. The target here seems to be parents. No specific reference to nutritional values, let alone whether these would be required or only encouraged. Earlier testimony by the Secretary suggests he may be counting on parental pressure.
- A consistent message during school time. “Message” means what foods are available in vending machines and a la carte areas. And here the Secretary did speak of standards.
- Innovative ways to reach children on non-school days.
- A recognition that the weight issue is also about physical activity. A reference here to the wellness policies that schools have been required to have since the Child Nutrition Act was last reauthorized. Also to USDA’s HealthierUS Schools Challenge–awards for schools that are promoting good nutrition and physical activity. In short, nothing new. But this is a tough issue in a country that prizes local control over school curricula.
- Continued support for the Farm to School Initiative, including technological assistance so that schools accurately account for their reimbursable activities. These include, but aren’t limited to purchases from local and regional producers.
President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget includes $1 billion a year for 10 years to support reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. This would obviously cover some financial and technical support for a number of the above priorities. But I have to wonder about improved nutritional quality.
The Institute of Medicine recently recommended significant changes in school breakfast and lunch menus–more fruits, more vegetables (dark green and orange, with a limit on starchy), whole grains, a maximum as well as a minimum number of calories, thus limiting opportunities to load meals up with high-sugar/high-fat options. These changes would obviously cost more.
Rochelle Davis, Founding Director of the Healthy Schools Campaign, says that school districts are already spending, on average, 35 cents more per lunch than the maximum reimbursement they can get from USDA. In urban areas, the gap is about 70 cents per meal. At this point, schools are highly vulnerable to cutbacks–hardly in a position to absorb higher costs.
Yet of all the administration’s priorities, expanding the meal programs and improving their nutritional profiles may be the most critical–especially for low-income children. So it’s important that the reauthorizing legislation put teeth into the nutritional quality part. Equally important that it provide sufficient funding.
Vilsack mentioned the need for strong grassroots support. And that surely will be needed in these deficit-minded times.
The Healthy Schools Campaign has an online letter we can use to get those grassroots growing.