In early May, the Senate Agriculture Committee issued its report on the bill it had unanimously approved to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act. This put the bill on the Senate general calendar, ready for debate by the full Senate whenever Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decides it’s time.
At this point, there’s no companion bill in the House. So the Senate bill is likely to become the basis for whatever Congress ultimately passes. That’s not a bad thing because there’s a lot to like in the bill. Also some things not to like.
On the positive side, Committee Chair Blanche Lincoln (D-NE) and her colleagues seem to have their minds around the top priorities. We see this in the bill title–The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
I’ll focus on the “healthy” part here and deal with the”hunger-free” part in a subsequent posting.
Basically, the bill aims to improve the nutrition quality of meals and snacks children get in school and in daycare and after-school programs. A couple of big initiatives here.
First, the bill would authorize the Secretary of Agriculture to establish standards for all foods and beverages sold on school campuses, including those in vending machines, snack bars and the a la carte lines that give kids an alternative to regular cafeteria meals.
So-called competitive foods are available at virtually all high schools and high percentages of middle and elementary schools too. At this point, they’re primarily high-fat/high-sugar options that appeal to kids. So they undermine whatever efforts schools are making to improve the nutritional value of the regular meals they serve. Who’s going to go to the cafeteria for broccoli and beans when they can buy a burger with a side of fries?
The bill would also require the Secretary to issue new school meal nutrition standards based on recommendations developed by the Institute of Medicine. These call for significant changes–more fruits, more vegetables (dark green and orange, with a limit on starchy), whole grains, 1% or fat-free milk and a maximum as well as a minimum number of calories.
As I’ve commented before, meals like these will certainly cost more than what schools can–and, in many cases, do–serve now. So the Agriculture Committee would give school districts that comply with the new regulations an additional 6 cents per lunch, with an annual adjustment for inflation.
Reality check. The current free lunch reimbursement rate is $2.70, up 2 cents from the 2008-9 school year. This rate is only for schools where 60% or more of the children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
The School Nutrition Association says that the 2008-9 average cost of preparing and serving a school lunch in compliance with current USDA nutrition standards was $2.92 cents and that costs have continued to rise since then. The Institute of Medicine estimated that its recommendations would increase food costs by 4% to 9%. Do the math.
The bill would also require child and adult care programs to serve meals based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans–the source for the IOM school meal recommendations. More cost increases here, I suspect. But no mention of a boost in reimbursement rates.
There’s more in the bill, even in just this category, e.g., an ongoing funding stream for school gardens, linkages to local food sources and other Farm to School activities, especially in schools with high proportions of low-income students.
But I’ll cut to the chase. What’s not to like is the funding. First, it’s too stingy to achieve its worthy objectives. Total funding would be $4.5 billion over 10 years–less than half of what President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2010 budget proposes. Hence, I suppose the measly 6 cents more for lunches.
Second, the bill would offset the new spending in part by gutting the SNAP/food stamp nutrition education program. If this isn’t robbing Peter to pay Paul, I don’t know what is. We want children to eat more healthfully–and to reduce the child obesity rate. So we cut support for efforts to help their parents choose a well-balanced selection of foods and encourage their kids to be active.
The Committee’s not allowed to grab funding outside its jurisdiction. So it’s possible that alternative and more generous funding will be found.
But concerns incorporated in the Committee report and outcries from farming and environmental interests suggest that more attention will be paid to another offset, which would level-fund EQIP (the Environmental Quality Incentives Program).