Healthy School Meals

When President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, it reauthorized school lunch programs and other child nutrition initiatives through 2015. Also known as the Healthy School Meals Act, the bill also included more than $4 billion for improved nutrition in these programs over the next 10 years.  

Over the past 30 years, childhood obesity rates have increased more than 3-fold. By 2008, more than 33 percent of children were overweight or obese. According to studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 7 percent of children ages 6-11 were obese in 1980. By 2008, this number was 20 percent. A similar increase was seen in children ages 12-19.

At the same time, the Journal of Human Resources was researching the role that the National School Lunch program played in the obesity epidemic. In a survey of more than 13,500 students, researchers found that children who ate school lunch were more likely to be obese than those who did not.

In response to these startling facts, school lunch reform legislation began to be presented in states across the country. Some areas, such as Washington D.C., passed their own legislation to improve the nutritional quality of school meals in the absence of comprehensive national standards.  

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 enforces nutritional guidelines set to provide at least 33 percent of the recommended Dietary Reference Intakes for children. This includes guidelines for calories, protein, calcium, iron and vitamins A and C. It requires that meals contain no more than 30 percent of calories from fat and no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat.

The United States Department of Agriculture also provides regulation regarding healthy school meals through the act, including offering child nutrition programs agricultural commodities at reduced prices and offers incentives for serving these commodities.

While the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was a step toward improving the nutrition of children’s’ meals, more improvement is still needed according to some. The new regulations encourage more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, but they also continue to be centered around high-fat entrees such as chicken nuggets and pizza.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, among others, recommends less importance placed on meat and dairy products as well as a lower percentage of calories from fat. They advocate for low-fat vegetarian entrees as well as access to non-dairy calcium-rich milk alternatives. They are also campaigning for more education on nutrition and healthy eating for food service workers and parents.

Another issue many have with the current legislation is with the commodities offered by the USDA. Several media outlets, including USA Today, have investigated the conflicts of interest within the government’s fight for healthier school meals. These include agreements with dairy farmers and potato growers. In 2002, one-third of the commodities available were fruits and vegetables, and potatoes were the only fresh vegetable. Meanwhile, 38 of the 111 commodities were meat or egg-based and 13 were dairy.

Additional Resources
-The Massachusetts Department of Elemtary and Secondary Education outlines the National School Lunch Program.
-School Lunch Revolution explains how to become an advocate for healthy school lunches.
-Citizens for Healthy Options in Children’s Education, or CHOICE, offers a step-by-step guide on how to lobby for healthier school lunches in your state.
-Grist provides a critic’s view of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 legislation.
-Healthy School Lunches provides an overview of the Healthy School Meals Act of 2010.
-The White House offered a press release regarding the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that includes input from many of the nation’s leaders.
-The current nutrition standards are set by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. The website includes information on the regulations and sample menus.