Nutrition reauthorization must make healthy school meals accessible to all

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As students are slowly returning to school in-person after a year of virtual learning, many of them will also rely more on school foods — given that children consume as many as one-half of their daily calories during the school day. The economic downturn has likely increased the number of children — currently more than 20 million — who qualify for free school breakfast and lunch. These school meals might be the only reliable meals they get.  

Schools became a frontline for feeding hungry kids during the pandemic with free meals and will need to continue doing so as classes return to normal. Luckily, schools have made remarkable progress providing children with healthier meals, snacks and beverages. 

Congress passed a landmark law over a decade ago — the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) — that required schools to put more fruits and vegetables on the tray and remove full-calorie soda and candy from vending machines, among other improvements. Thanks to these changes, the Department of Agriculture (DOA) found that the nutritional quality of school lunches and breakfasts increased by nearly 50 percent from 2009 to 2014. Researchers have described the act as “one of the most important national obesity prevention policy achievements in recent decades.” It is estimated that these improvements could prevent more than 2 million cases of childhood obesity and save up to $792 million in health care-related costs over 10 years. 

Congress now has the opportunity to build on this success. In particular, the senators on the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee took the lead last Thursday, March 25, during the first and likely only hearing to reauthorize the child nutrition programs, which include the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs. A joint letter from 36 organizations advocating for reducing nutrition and food insecurity is urging the committee to ensure school meals remain healthy and available for free.  

Strong nutrition standards assure that every child across socioeconomic status, race and ethnic groups have access to healthier food. But this progress is at risk. Over the years, special interest groups and politicians putting politics before kids’ health have undermined healthy school meals by stopping schools from reducing salt and providing more whole grains. Just last year the Center for Science in the Public Interest won an important legal victory that stopped USDA from weakening meal standards

In this upcoming reauthorization, Congress must make sure school meals meet science-based nutrition standards that are determined by the experts and not special interests. In particular, schools are not meeting science-based standards for whole grains, salt and added sugars. Schools must have the support they need to provide healthy meals during and after the pandemic. 

In fact, schools currently do not have to reduce added sugars — this must be fixed. Among children, intake of added sugars has been associated with increased weight gain, poor diet quality, cavities and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. A recent study found that nine out of 10 schools exceed the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) limit for added sugars for breakfast, and nearly seven out of 10 schools — or 69 percent— do so for lunch. A limit on added sugars is the only DGA recommendation that does not have a corresponding nutrition standard for school meals.

As more families struggle to meet basic needs during the pandemic, schools have been providing meals at no cost and must be able to continue. This helps the many struggling families who do not qualify for free school meals (to qualify, a family of four must make under $35,000). Providing healthy school meals for all reduces the paperwork burden for families and schools, eliminates the stigma of being singled out for receiving school meal assistance and helps schools return to fiscal solvency, which is crucial given that the vast majority of them are in the red due to the pandemic.

Congress must help address the challenges of food and nutrition insecurity facing our children today. 

Colin Schwartz, MPP, is the deputy director of Federal Affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Tags coronavirus school closures COVID-19 free school meals hungry school kids Pandemic School lunches school meals virtual learning

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