New child nutrition law strikes a healthy balance

Unlike other aspects of education, the school meal programs have been funded and run as national programs since the Truman Administration. The federal government provides over $12 billion a year to local schools for lunches and breakfasts. States and localities kick in less than 10 percent of program revenue. The child nutrition law helps to maximize that investment, improving access to the programs and ensuring that school meals provide the good nutrition children need.

One no-cost measure in the new law will get junk food out of schools. The USDA can now update its 30-year-old nutrition standards for vending machines, a la carte foods, school stores and fundraisers. Some mistakenly charge that will be bad for school budgets. But studies show that when junk food no longer undermines balanced school meals, revenue increases because more kids buy school lunch instead of junk.

The new child nutrition law will enhance USDA’s efforts to provide schools with model menus, healthy recipes, and more training and technical assistance to help them serve healthier meals. It also will expand quality improvement measures; school districts' meal quality will be reviewed more often to enhance accountability and better help schools meet nutrition standards.

As required by the new child nutrition law, the USDA recently proposed much-needed updates to the school lunch and breakfast standards based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 

A strong package of provisions was included in the child nutrition law to increase funding for healthy school meals. Schools can receive a six-cent increase per lunch if they meet the new nutrition standards. That can help schools pay for more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other healthy foods.

An estimated $2.7 billion will be generated over ten years as schools gradually close the gap between the price of school meals and the cost to provide them. The cost of school meals for middle and upper-income families has remained artificially low in many schools, resulting in schools diverting money that is meant to provide healthy food for low-income kids. Schools can close the gap using state, local, or private funds or by increasing the prices of paid meals.

The new law allows families to be more involved and informed about their children’s nutrition and well being. Information will be available to parents about the nutritional quality of meals served at school. And local school wellness policies will improve nutrition promotion and physical activity in schools.

The proposed changes to school meals are achievable. The problem is that, while school meal quality has been slowly improving over the last decade, most schools still are not serving enough fruits, vegetables (and too many of those vegetables are french fries) and whole grains, and are serving too much sodium, unhealthy saturated and trans fats, and high-fat milk and cheeses. 

Congress should return to the bipartisan tradition that has been a hallmark of the child nutrition programs since Republicans and Democrats together established the school lunch program in the 1940s. Given the sky-high rates of childhood obesity, our kids need that cooperation now more than ever.

The new child nutrition law strikes a healthy balance. Its implementation will help protect children's health, support local schools to serve healthier meals, and get the most out of the national investment in the school lunch and breakfast programs.

Margo G. Wootan is the director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

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