New children's nutrition law to improve cafeteria meals

The measure, approved by the House this month, makes meals healthier and restricts the sale of junk food in school vending machines.

By Chris Silva — Posted Dec. 20, 2010

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President Obama has signed into law legislation that medical organizations and lawmakers believe will help make significant progress toward ending child hunger and obesity. The measure expands access to federal nutrition programs, improves the nutritional value of meals and limits the sale of junk food in schools.

Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act on Dec. 13. Under the law, an additional $4.5 billion will be provided during the next 10 years for federal school nutrition programs -- nearly 10 times the amount provided under the previous child nutrition reauthorization and the largest new investment in child nutrition programs since their inception, lawmakers said.

"At a very basic level, this act is about doing what's right for our children," Obama said. "Right now, across the country, too many kids don't have access to school meals. And often, the food that's being offered isn't as healthy or as nutritious as it should be.

"Doctors are now starting to see conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes in children -- these are things that they only used to see in adults. And this bill is about reversing that trend and giving our kids the healthy futures that they deserve."

The House passed the bill on Dec. 2, nearly four months after the Senate passed its version of the legislation.

"For too long, we have allowed unchecked junk food in our schools to undermine not just the health of our kids, but also the desires of parents, and our taxpayer investment in school meals," said Tom Harkin (D, Iowa), who, along with Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D, Calif.), has introduced the legislation in every Congress since 2006.

More kids to get school meals

The number of children enrolled in school meals will be increased by using Medicaid data to directly certify eligible children, bill supporters said. In addition to providing higher reimbursement rates to schools for lunches, the act directs the Dept. of Agriculture secretary to provide guidance on allowable charges to school food service accounts and ensures that money meant for healthy school meals is not diverted to subsidizing junk food sold a la carte in cafeterias.

The Agriculture Dept. will come up with nutrition standards for what can and can't be sold through vending and a la carte. Moreover, the measure requires the department to update its nutrition standards for foods sold through vending machines, a la carte lines and elsewhere at schools.

Current standards are 30 years out of date and apply only to the cafeteria during mealtimes, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition and food safety nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

"Simultaneously tackling childhood obesity and hunger, this bipartisan bill gets a lot of junk food out of schools and a lot of healthier food into schools," said Margo Wootan, the center's director of nutrition policy.

Several physician and medical associations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Preventive Medicine, the American Diabetes Assn., the American Heart Assn. and the American Cancer Society lauded the new law.

"In addition to reauthorizing federal child nutrition programs, the act will help address childhood obesity by reducing the fat and calorie content of school meals," said AAP President O. Marion Burton, MD. "The legislation also sets strict limits for the nutritional content of foods sold in school vending machines and other settings outside the school lunch and breakfast program -- a major step toward healthier eating habits."

The American Public Health Assn., which includes state Medicaid directors, also supports the measure, noting how it helps provide free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches to almost 31 million children.

It "is a win-win for the health of our nation's children," said Georges C. Benjamin, MD, FACP, executive director of APHA. "It [will] significantly reduce the burden of child hunger in this country and help combat the childhood obesity epidemic that is growing at an alarming rate."

First lady weighs in

While making its way through Congress, the legislation enjoyed the Obama administration's support. First lady Michelle Obama has spearheaded her "Let's Move" initiative, focused on reducing childhood obesity.

A study the Brookings Institution released Aug. 12 concluded that the total costs of obesity in the U.S. may exceed $215 billion annually. Of that amount, $14.3 billion is attributed to children.

On Sept. 2, the American Medical Association issued a statement of support for National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month.

In addition, the AMA utilizes its "Healthier Life Steps" comprehensive online tool to facilitate greater discussion between patients and physicians about healthy lifestyle choices.

The tool kit includes screening checklists, intervention plans and other components.

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Fighting hunger, improving nutrition

Supporters of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which President Obama signed into law Dec. 13, believe it will dramatically improve children's access to nutritious meals because it will:

  • Connect about 115,000 new students to the school meals programs.
  • Boost the federal reimbursement rate for school lunches in districts that comply with federal nutrition standards. The six-cents-per-meal rate increase is the first in more than 30 years.
  • Help communities establish farm-to-school networks, create school gardens and put more local foods in cafeterias. The measure provides $40 million for those changes.
  • Modernize the Women, Infants and Children program by transitioning to an electronic benefit program.
  • Provide an additional 21 million meals annually for at-risk children by allowing the providers under the Child and Adult Care Food Program to be reimbursed for meals provided to low-income children after school.
  • Support breastfeeding for low-income women by bolstering data collection efforts in the WIC program.

Source: The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (link)

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External links

AMA on combating obesity and promoting healthy lifestyles (link)

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