By now the American public accepts that there is nothing the Republican-led Congress and the Obama administration will not get into a to-the-brink dispute over. But even by that jaded standard, it’s remarkable that the two may face an impasse over school lunches.
That, however, is the prospect as a Sept. 30 deadline looms for the five-year re-authorization of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The law, a modification of the decades-old Child Nutrition Act, added requirements for fresher and healthier foods and supports lunch plans that offer summer programs for children.
The idea was to fight expanding child obesity by improving the 30 million lunches and more than 12 million breakfasts schools provide for students every day. The new standards cut back high-fat and high sodium food items from the cafeteria offerings and added requirements for whole-grain breads and a 1/2 cup of fruits or vegetables.
The changes have the general support of school nutritionists but have met resistance from some students and school officials. In some schools, waste is up as children ignore required vegetables and whole-grain breads.
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That means more wasted food, fewer cafeteria customers and higher food costs to some school districts. And that’s all many Republicans who opposed the original plan need to hear to ask for changes in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Should Congress use to the reauthorization to amend the law, subsidized school lunches will still be provided, but additional healthy food requirements that are scheduled to take effect could be eliminated.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is pushing for the renewal of the law as it is. He dismisses most complaints as resistance to change and insists the USDA has been flexible on standards and provided programs to help schools struggling with the standards. Today, 95 percent of schools report that their food complies with the updated nutrition standards.
“We’re encouraging Congress to get the work done,” Vilsack said in a recent interview with The News & Observer. “The fact that there may be a handful of schools having a hard time meeting the standards is no reason to take a step back.”
Vilsack is right. Studies show less waste, more lunch revenues and, presumably more children eating better food. But Dr. Lynn Harvey, chief of North Carolina’s school nutrition services, says there is a need for more flexibility. She says, “We want (children) to consume the items we provide. Throwing food in the trash serves no one.”
In North Carolina, more is at issue than the taste of food. Passing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act without rolling back or freezing its nutrition standards is crucial to addressing a growing problem of hunger.
One in every four children in North Carolina lives below the poverty line and the problem is getting worse. As the number of North Carolina children in poverty grows, school lunches and breakfasts and summer meals are increasingly important sources of food. In 2003, 43 percent of North Carolina’s public school children qualified for a free or reduced lunch. This year, it’s 58 percent.
Ensuring that children eat – and eat well – is a key to reducing obesity and hunger. It’s terrible that the need is so great, but that great need means Congress must stay the course and keep whole the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.