Small bite in the right direction

Fresh fruit for lunch.

Fancy a bite of something fresh for lunch? Photo: Rhobinn via Flickr.

Last month, after a year and a half of Senate and House lobbying by First Lady Michelle Obama and school food advocates, President Obama signed the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (CNR) to the tune of $4.5 billion. A seemingly enormous amount of money, until you consider that it will be disbursed over ten years. Half of the money is slated to come directly out of the food stamp program. At that cost, I was curious to see what tangible effects we could expect.

After reviewing the fact sheet on the bill, here’s the impact I saw for kids in my Charlottesville Virginia City Schools (CCS) district.

The new CNR, “gives US Department of Agriculture (USDA) the authority to set nutritional standards for all foods regularly sold in schools during the school day, including vending machines, the ‘a la carte’ lunch lines, and school stores.”

Same old, same old?

Since CCS already follows the USDA guidelines for non-cafeteria food, foods such as frosted pop-tarts, cookies, ice cream, “vitamin” water and super-salty chips will likely remain in vending machines and at the upper middle school snack bar. This is odd given that American adolescents consume an average of 4 cups of sugars per week. It would behoove the USDA to examine its already generous guideline of “no more than 35% sugar by weight per item” rather than just extending it outside of the lunch line.

Another CNR provision “provides additional funding to schools that meet updated nutritional standards for federally-subsidized lunches.” This refers to the additional $0.06 allowed per meal if schools are able to increase fruit and vegetable offerings.

I’m all for more veggies. But the reality is that kids don’t like vegetables because, with the exception of potatoes, we American’s don’t eat them.

Without an integrated educational program (and, arguably, better quality and preparation) kids will simply dump veggies off their food trays as they have for years.

Frankly, the fuss for more produce in school meals obscures a much simpler path to making school food healthier: We could improve it overnight just by getting rid of all the sugar served in the federally subsidized meal program – as much as 15 teaspoons just for breakfast (that’s like having two sodas).

Going local?

The provision that “helps communities establish local farm to school networks, create school gardens, and ensures that more local foods are used in the school setting” is a noble first step toward addressing the sustainability issue our country is facing. Unfortunately, since this is a competitive program, only a small percentage of schools will be able to partake of the offer.

Often, if any school in a district got a grant in a previous year, the district is not eligible to reapply. One of our local schools, Clark Elementary, hit that hurdle last year. Despite being the poorest elementary school in Charlottesville (85% free and reduced lunch) and providing daily meals for the second poorest elementary school in the district (which has no cafeteria), it couldn’t apply for a grant for upgraded kitchen equipment. Another school in the district had gotten it the previous year.

Probably my favorite part of the bill is the mandate to “expand access to drinking water in schools, particularly during meal times.” I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will be worded in a way that doesn’t allow Nutrition Services to claim that the water fountain just outside of the cafeteria meets this requirement.

A better standard

As chair of the Charlottesville School Health Advisory Board, I also look forward to support from the federal government in setting “basic standards for school wellness policies including goals for nutrition promotion and education and physical activity” These policies, mandated in 2006, have tended to be more a loose list of “suggestions” for school boards and schools than clearly defined guidelines. As a result many administrators simply choose to ignore them. Of course, given the USDA’s poor track record with guidelines (i.e., 35% sugar per item by weight), I’m not holding my breath.

O.K., obviously, I was less than impressed by the act. Still, $0.06 additional spending per meal could buy a quarter of a fresh apple. And, that’s something.

But, I do wish that as one of the wealthiest countries in the world (debt to China not withstanding) we could shoot for something significantly better for our children – without robbing their dinner to improve their lunch.

Someone’s watching out

As luck would have it, so does Ohio representative Dennis Kucinich who authored H.R. 4310 in December 2009. The bill aimed to get rid of a little known tax haven for fast food manufacturers. Right now they get a tax break on money spent to advertise their addictive and fattening products to kids.

That’s right, a tax break to advertise junk food to kids!

“It’s one thing to allow this type of predatory marketing to proliferate like this, but using taxpayer money to encourage it is reprehensible. We cannot credibly claim to be searching for solutions to childhood obesity if we don’t address corporate obesity marketing to children,” said Kucinich.


Cutting the fat

According to a peer-reviewed paper published in the Journal of Law and Economics in 2008, the number of overweight children in the U.S. would be reduced by more than 5-7% if H.R. 4310 were enacted. And, by removing this annual $2 billion tax break, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates $15-19 billion over the next ten years could be put towards child nutrition programs.

Now, that could buy some real school lunch improvement.

Mrs. Obama, take note.

— Ivana Kadija, Transition Voice

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