The Day After: Reflections on the New School Food Law

by Bettina Elias Siegel on December 3, 2010

In the aftermath of yesterday’s passage by the House of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, it’s worth reflecting for a moment on what has been achieved.  With all the talk here and elsewhere about the (in)adequacy of the six-cents-per-meal funding increase, and concern about using food stamp dollars to fund the law, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there is much in this legislation to feel very good about:

Among other things, the legislation (which will presumably be signed into law shortly), will:

  • increase the number of children in the national school food program.  As discussed here earlier this week, many hungry and/or economically disadvantaged kids who qualify for free or reduced price meals are not currently receiving them, and the new law should help remedy that problem in a variety of ways;
  • provide funding for state and local projects to address childhood hunger and promote food security for low-income children;
  • help communities establish farm to school networks, create school gardens and use more local foods in cafeterias with $40 million in mandatory funding;
  • strengthen school wellness policies by updating existing requirements, increasing transparency, providing opportunities for community involvement, and compliance measurements;
  • support breastfeeding for low-income women who take advantage of WIC benefits;
  • establish professional standards and training opportunities for school food service providers;
  • improve food safety requirements for school meals;
  • remove junk food from schools by applying nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools.  (I need more information on this point — what the standards will be and to what food they will apply.  I’ll report back here.);
  • improve the quality of school meals by providing an additional six cents per meal, the first funding increase in over 30 years.

Turning to that last point, the six cents increase, it remains to be seen what can be achieved by school districts with the additional funding.  I did look skeptically this morning at this graphic from the New York Times (apparently based on data from the Center for Science in the Public Interest) purporting to show how a school meal will change under the new law:

How the nutrition bill would change a meal.

BEFORE

Fried chicken patty

White roll

Canned green beans

Whole milk

Package of snack cakes (from vending machine)

AFTER

Barbecued chicken patty

Whole grain roll

Locally grown carrots

1 percent milk

Sliced apples

I hope my skepticism is misplaced. If that transformation really can be achieved, there will be joy in the land.  Stay tuned.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Louise Goldberg December 3, 2010 at 10:27 am

Yes! Please keep us posted if you find out more–I am very interested in the details of removing non-nutrititive (aka ‘junk’) items from the cafeterias. This is *technically* a no-cost improvement and I, personally, think this carries a lot of weight. (theoretically no additional cost.. but I don’t know the details of whether the school actually loses income if the vendors aren’t allowed to sell) In older level grade schools, kids have been spending their lunch money on the stuff vendors bring in (sweets, chips, etc) and not even purchasing a tray. Hopefully this redirects the funds back to the trays where there has been so much focus on improving the nutritional quality of that food.
Thanks Bettina for a clear informative post!

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Ed Bruske December 3, 2010 at 11:12 am

There are many good features to this legislation, and many misperceptions. One popular misperception is that the six cents referred to is somehow the first increase in the reimbursement rate ever. In fact, the reimbursement rate typically increases every year according to changes in the Consumer Price Index. This year, for instance, it rose four cents, from $2.68 per meal to $2.72. So the six cents contained in this legislation really is no better than what the program recieves automatically on an annual basis.

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bettina elias siegel December 3, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Ed: I don’t think that’s quite right. From the LA Times, among many other sources: “The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act would increase the reimbursement rate for school lunches by 6 cents, the first increase in 30 years aside from inflation adjustments.” (emphasis mine.) In other words, school districts will still get their annual inflation adjustments PLUS the six cents, and that type of increase, over and above inflation, hasn’t happened in 30 years. – Bettina

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Dana Woldow December 3, 2010 at 3:20 pm

You are correct – every year there is a COLA, but the 6 cents is apart from that. I looked up the COLA for the past decade and found that on average the reimbursement rate for free has gone up 7 cents a year since the 2000-01 school year; in recent years it was higher than average (up 11 cents from 08-09 to 09-10, up 10 cents the year before that) but it was lower in other years (up 5 cents each year from 01-02 to 04-05). From 09-10 to the current year, it went up just 4 cents, the lowest this decade (I got bored after 10 years so didn’t bother to go back farther).

So even if we get the extra 6 cents this year (and I am not sure how soon the act takes effect), it would still mean a total increase (COLA plus the non-COLA 6 cent increase) of just 10 cents, or less than the COLA for last year. The COLA is supposedly tied to the rate of inflation and maybe inflation is slowing, but is it really at its lowest point in a decade? Doesn’t feel like it!

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bettina elias siegel December 3, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Thanks, Dana, for the clarification.

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SoKnitpicky December 3, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Bettina, I just wanted to stop by and share this with you:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/nyregion/30bigcity.html?_r=3&ref=todayspaper

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bettina elias siegel December 3, 2010 at 1:56 pm

SoKnitPicky: My husband read this aloud to us from the paper at breakfast, to everyone’s delight. Thank you for reminding me of it – I’m going to repost in today’s Friday Buffet, with a hat tip to you!

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Bri December 3, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Hey, Bettina. Great post. I linked to you in mine: http://redroundorgreen.wordpress.com/2010/12/03/new-school-food-laws-and-minding-the-gap/

Thanks for the inspiration.

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bettina elias siegel December 3, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Just responded! :-)

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Diane Pratt-Heavner December 3, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Six cents can make a difference! In many communities, that is the cost difference between a serving of whole wheat and white bread or between canned and fresh vegetables. Many schools have already made these changes (see http://www.TrayTalk.org) and plan to apply the increase to purchasing more locally grown foods or toward staff training.

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