Breaking News: House of Reps Passes Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010

According to the Obama Foodorama Twitter feed, the House of Representatives has passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 by a vote of 264 to 157.    This is the Senate bill which reauthorizes for five years a variety of nutrition programs including WIC and, of course, the National School Lunch Program.  It will increase school food funding by 6 cents per meal.

I’ll have more updates as they become available.

Why Hungry Kids Sometimes Still Go Hungry in American Schools

A reader recently sent me a Reuters article describing a study from Canada which demonstrates (not surprisingly) that adolescents from food insecure households perform better academically and have better behavior in school when the schools provide meal assistance.

The study reminded me that way back in July (and then again in August!), I promised to explain how it is that hungry children in American schools often still go hungry — and how the Obama administration is trying to increase their participation in school food programs.  Under the heading “better late than never,” here’s my post on that subject.

Some children who are eligible for free/reduced price meals choose not to take advantage of the program because of the stigma attached to such meals, especially when there’s an “a la carte” line in the same lunchroom offering such “cool” foods as Papa John’s pizza and fruit slushies.  That’s a critically important topic worthy of separate examination, and I’ve discussed it here previously (“A La Carte – A World Apart?”).

But as Janet Poppendieck discusses in Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, many kids who qualify for free/reduced price meals never get those benefits in the first place (regardless of whether they then use them to get the “uncool” meal).  She cites four major obstacles to children’s participation in the free/reduced price meal program:

Application:  Parents of hungry children may not always apply for free/reduced lunch.  The reasons can include being unaware of the program; feeling a sense of stigma at having to rely on government assistance; finding the forms too daunting to fill out, especially in the case of new immigrants; or a (misplaced) fear of the form being sent to immigration authorities.

Certification: Innumerable errors can (and do) occur in the processing of applications by schools which can result in a child never getting certified by the program, even if a parent has tried to apply.

Verification:  A subset of applications will be selected for random verification, in which the parent must provide documentation of household size and income.  This can be daunting for many parents, including the new immigrant or the parent who is paid in cash at work (such as a cleaning lady or nanny).  According to 2002 data cited by Poppendieck, 50% of those parents from whom documentation was sought simply didn’t respond and their child’s meal benefits were terminated.

Price:  Parents who don’t qualify for free meals may be able to receive reduced price meals for their children.  However, the reduced price can still be unaffordable to a family in that income category. Poppendieck lays this out well in her book, showing how, after normal household expenses, such a family could struggle to come up with the reduced price each day, five days a week, for their children.

The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, up for a vote as early as today, would attempt to fix some of these problems through a variety of means, including allowing schools in high-poverty areas to offer free meals to all students without any paperwork, making foster children automatically eligible for free meals, and giving incentives to states that improve their certification rates.

Until we fix this problem, however, we’re confronted with the sad paradox of hungry kids enrolled in schools offering food, yet still going hungry.  And as the study cited above makes clear, the resulting consequences — poor academic performance, behavior problems and school absenteeism — hurt us all in the long run.

Link Round-Up: Food Safety, the Child Nutrition Bill, a Kellogg’s Class Action and More

Since this will be a short week on TLT, I wanted to do a quick-and-dirty link round-up to keep you abreast of some important kid-and-food developments.

Child Nutrition Bill Still Pending in Lame Duck Session

The child nutrition bill which would improve and increase funding for school food is still stalled in the House of Representatives.  The issue blocking passage is the question of funding: the bill, as written, currently uses money from the food stamp program.  From Two Angry Moms’ Facebook page, here’s a good essay on the horrible food-stamps-versus-lunch conundrum and the ways in which individual hunger impacts our entire society.

Food Safety Bill in the Senate

As you may know, there’s an important food safety bill in the Senate right now.  The WashPo has a summary of what’s going on here and also an interview with Michael Pollan about the bill here.  This issue is of course not just kid-and-food related — in this age of massive salmonella egg recalls and worry over seemingly innocuous foods like fresh spinach carrying E. coli, we would all benefit from greater food safety oversight.

Kellogg’s Loses Class Action Lawsuit Over Frosted Mini Wheats Claim

This one is right up my alley as a former advertising lawyer and kid-and-food blogger:  Kellogg’s has lost a class action lawsuit regarding product claims that eating Mini Wheats cereal will improve children’s attention spans.  The FTC had previously gone after Kellogg’s for this type of attention claim for its Mini Wheats, as well as for improved immunity claims for its Rice Krispies cereal (which campaign was launched right at the height of parents’ swine flu fears.)   Although it would have made my life more difficult when I was an in-house advertising lawyer, it’s heartening to see that the FTC is now more actively policing these sorts of potentially misleading front label claims.

A New Blog to Share:  Feed Our Families

When TLT was named as a Jamie Oliver Blog of the Month last week, I learned for the first time of my co-award-winner, a blog called “Feed Our Families.”   It’s written by Gina Rau, who has a background in the food industry and who now helps families feed themselves better.   It’s full of recipes, ideas for getting the whole family to eat well, tips on meal-planning, food budgets, organization, and more. Check it out!

Child Nutrition Bill: Is This Week the “Make-or-Break” Week for Passage?

Via Chef Ann Cooper’s Facebook feed I learned of this post on Civil Eats, giving an excellent recap and update on where the pending child nutrition bill stands in Congress.  According to the post’s author, Adriana Velez, this week may be critical for the bill’s passage.  She writes:

According to The Hill 80 percent of Americans support expansion of the act to “provide healthier food and cover more kids.” Yet in the current climate of economic crisis, finding the funding for this expansion has been a nearly insurmountable challenge. If this bill is not passed within the current lame-duck session, the new session of Congress will have to start over, perhaps with a diminished commitment to its expansion. In fact, there is reason to believe that there will be no work done the week after Thanksgiving, which means this week is make-or-break week for the bill.

As you know from prior posts here on The Lunch Tray, the key issue is funding — should the bill be funded using money currently allocated to the food stamps program, and will the White House live up to its recent promise to eventually make up those funding shortfalls if the bill is passed?

Child hunger and nutrition advocates come out on different sides of that question, and the Civil Eats post provides actions you can take in support of either position.

Update on Hunger, Food Stamps and the Child Nutrition Bill

Today the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) reported that almost 18% of Americans said in September that they’d struggled to afford feeding themselves and their families over the past year.   While that number is still much too high — almost one in five households — it does represent a slight decrease from 2009 (by .8%).  It also continues an overall slowing trend in hunger rates, which FRAC attributes to an increase in food stamp (SNAP) benefits passed by Congress in April of 2009.

Now, of course, the food stamp program may lose significant funding if Congress continues to look to SNAP dollars to fund the stalled child nutrition bill (the CNA), which covers school food, as well as WIC and other federal food programs.   (An excellent summary of the SNAP/CNA conundrum is found here).  FRAC, along with many other organizations, is urging Congress to find funding elsewhere.

There have been reports that the Obama administration is committed to getting the child nutrition bill passed in the lame duck session and is working with Congress to restore the SNAP offsets down the road.   Our own school district’s food services gave us this impression as well, presumably based on information from Armark’s Washington lobbyists.   However, this NPR report issued today is more equivocal.  (I won’t comment on the fact that NPR is using “my” lunch tray photo!)

I’ll keep you posted of new developments here.

Attend a “Virtual Rally” to Protest Current School Food – Going on RIGHT NOW!

I just learned from Slow Food USA that the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) is holding a virtual rally — going on right now — to protest the current state of school food, Congress’s failure to pass the CNA and its plan to fund any child nutrition legislation with money from the food stamp program.

The Virtual Rally for a Strong Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) ends at 4pm EST today.  From change.org’s website, here’s how to make your voice heard:

Facebook and Twitter

1) Follow FRAC (@fractweets) or check out the organization’s Facebook page here. Throughout the day, FRAC will be sharing messages that folks are encouraged to share and retweet. The hashtag you can use is #Rally4CNR.

2) Update your Facebook status to say that you are “joining FRAC’s Virtual Rally for Child Nutrition Reauthorization and asking the White House to support a strong bill that improves the child nutrition programs without cutting future SNAP benefits. Repost to join the Rally.”

3) Hold a virtual rally sign by changing your Facebook and Twitter profile pics to FRAC’s flyer, which you can access here (pdf).

4) RSVP to the rally on Facebook, and send the invite to your other friends.

Phone

1) Call 202-456-1414 or e-mail the White House during the hours of 12pm-4pm EST today and tell them that you want a strong CNR that doesn’t take any funding away from food stamp benefits.

Word of Mouth

1) Make sure you tell friends, family, co-workers, and strangers on the street about the rally, and encourage them to join in.

You can also lend your support by signing Change.org’s petition asking Congress to improve school lunches without cutting any food stamp funds.

I’m off to protest via Facebook.  Hope you’ll do the same.

A Message from Jamie Oliver re: the Stalled Child Nutrition Bill

Today Jamie Oliver shared his views on CNN about Congress’s failure last week to pass the pending child nutrition legislation.  See what he has to say here.

Also, over 600,000 people have added their names to Jamie’s Food Revolution online petition to improve school food.  If you haven’t already done so, click here.

Thanks to all the TLT readers who sent me this link today.

Le Sigh . . . Watch This Video About School Lunch in France, Then Weep

Thanks to my friend Alyce Ester (of the great online cooking magazine, Culinary Thymes), I learned of this recent CBS Sunday Morning segment on school lunches in France.

You might want to get out some hankies before you watch this. There’s everything you’d expect from France and more: five course meals for three-year olds; locally-sourced, hand-prepared foods; an emphasis on regional cuisine; real china plates and cutlery  (ou est le spork?) ; food that teaches kids about French culture (escargot!  bouillabaisse!) rather than being dumbed down to our depressing Kid Food level; etc. etc.

The report highlights two French schools, one where the cost of a meal is $5 or $6 per student, about twice what the U.S. federal government pays schools for children on free lunch, and another where the chef works with about half that amount.  If at that latter school, overhead is included in the cost of the lunch (the report doesn’t say), then the chef is turning out amazing food for the same money that provides our kids with nuggets and pizza.  My guess, though, is that at the school with the lower-priced lunches, all $2.50-$3.00 is going toward food, whereas in American schools, that figure is usually about 95 cents to $1.10, after overhead.

And to think that Congress was unable to come up with a six-cent-per-meal increase, which, if even if we’d gotten it, was going to come out of the mouths of people on food stamps.

It’s enough to make you choke on your Freedom Fries.

Breaking News: Child Nutrition Bill Will NOT Go to a House Vote Before Autumn Recess

From the Obama Foodorama blog:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has confirmed that the pending $8 billion child nutrition legislation will not be brought to a vote in the House before Members leave for the Autumn recess, a source tells Ob Fo. First Lady Michelle Obama has made passing the historic legislation a centerpiece of her Let’s Move! campaign, and since June, she has repeatedly urged lawmakers to go for it, so President Obamacould sign it into law before the end of September. Clearly, that ideal scenario has now fallen like a souffle, despite aides revealing to media this week that Mrs. Obama had been making personal calls to Dem lawmakers, and that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had been confabbing with House Members, too. . . .

The House legislation could be taken up in the lame duck session after the mid-term elections, but even that isn’t certain. The bill was a historic moment in child nutrition history: For the first time in three decades, the non inflationary reimbursement rate for school lunches was increased, and there were all kinds of components that helped improve school-based nutrition programs, as well as other federal feeding initiatives.

As previously reported here, many House Democrats balked at passing a bill that paid for child nutrition programs out of SNAP (food stamp) funds.

In addition, almost all school food advocates felt that the bill was grossly underfunded, providing only a six-cent-per-meal increase that was unlikely to  significantly improve the food on kids’ lunch trays.  That said, the legislation contained many other much-needed provisions, as Ed Bruske mentioned in his opinion piece on Grist today.

It remains to be seen what, if anything, will happen after the autumn recess.  I’ll of course keep you posted on TLT.

[Hat tip:  Healthy Schools Campaign]

A Mother and School Food Advocate Tells It Like It Is

As we approach tomorrow’s deadline for the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, CNN/Eatocracy has this interview with Dana Woldow, a parent and school food advocate in San Francisco.

I love Woldow’s clear-eyed assessment of the problems schools face in improving food.  For example, although she applauds the attention that Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools program has brought to school food, she’s a realist, too:

A lot of the programs the USDA sponsors are based around the idea that every school cafeteria has a kitchen. Well, here in San Francisco, like a lot of school districts in this country, we don’t. We haven’t cooked in our elementary schools in more than 25 years. You can talk all you like about chefs moving to schools and sharing their expertise and that would be great, but we don’t have any place for those chefs to cook. And you can have kids developing recipes from scratch with dark green leafy vegetables and that’s wonderful, but where are these recipes going to be cooked if there is no kitchen?

On the other hand, she does have good news to share from her own district.  After finding out that her cafeteria was operating at a loss, despite heavy sales of soda and junk food, she advocated for a pilot program at one middle school:

It eliminated the junk food from the a la cart program and removed it from the vending machines.  Instead they sold freshly made deli sandwiches, salads, soup and even sushi. ‘Three months after we started our pilot project, the cafeteria was breaking even. Six months into it, our cafeteria was one of two in the school district that turned a profit. So much for the idea that you will lose money if you stop selling junk food in your cafeteria,’ Woldow said.

The next year they expanded the program to every middle and high school. Based on the program’s success, the school board passed a resolution to remove junk food by the start of the 2003-2004 school year.

The entire article is well worth reading, and I’m going to see if I can track down Woldow for a guest blog post on TLT. I’d also like to get more financial data on the San Francisco district to see if these changes could be affordably replicated in my own.

Thanks, Anthony, for sending me the link!

Ed Bruske on the CNA Authorization – Keep Your Lousy Six Cents

Ed Bruske has a thought-provoking opinion piece on Grist regarding the pending reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.

Rather than taking money from food stamps to fund the negligible six cent increase for school meals, let Congress keep the money, says Bruske.  It’s far more important to pass the bill because it contains

a provision that would, for the first time, give the USDA authority to regulate all foods sold in schools, possibly meaning an end — finally — to so-called “competitive foods,” such as sugary drinks and candy in school vending machines and ice cream bars and fruit rollups in the deli line. That would go a long way toward addressing the obesity epidemic that Michelle Obama has pledged to end.

Definitely take a look at the full post.

An Update on the CNA Reauthorization – Using Food Stamp Dollars to Pay for School Food

Interrupting Bento Day on TLT to keep you abreast of what’s going on with the child nutrition legislation currently pending in Congress.  You may recall that the deadline for the CNA reauthorization is just two days away – September 30th.

This piece from Politico describes tensions between First Lady Michelle Obama and House Democrats who are currently considering the legislation.  Funding for the bill is being taken from SNAP, the food stamp program, which understandably concerns many legislators.  These Democrats are asking for assurances from the White House that if the bill is passed as written, the money taken from SNAP will be replaced in the near future.

I’ll keep you posted on any new developments.

[Hat tip: John Lippman of Two Angry Moms]