By Becky Levin
While we are plugging away at local efforts to improve school meals in D.C., Congress is reviewing or “reauthorizing” the federal law which sets policies and mandates funds for all child nutrition programs spanning school meals and snacks, child care and Head Start meals and snacks, and WIC- a program for pregnant women and young children. The whole package is called Child Nutrition reauthorization (CNR), and is updated about every five years. The process starts today in the U.S. Senate’s Agriculture Committee.
The good news is that most of the funding is mandated. That means we don’t have to fight for funding every year. This bill sets funding levels for approximately five years. And it generally receives bipartisan support, even in this incredibly divisive Congress.
President Barack Obama has set the stage for CNR by including an increase of $1 billion each year for CNR. This is the largest increase ever proposed, but it would be spread over programs that feed 33 million school-aged children and 3 million children in child care programs.
So what does $1 billion buy for 36 million children in one year? Not as much as we would like, but it is an important start to provide healthier meals and snacks through child nutrition programs and to address the scary explosion of hunger in children in this difficult economy and the spikes in childhood obesity.
The bill proposed by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AK), head of the Senate's agriculture committee, comes in at just under half the size of the President’s proposal- $4.5 billion over 10 years. Her bill would raise the federal subsidy for school meals--currently $2.68 for each fully-subsidized lunch--by 6 cents. In fact, this is less than what the school meals programs receive every year as routine cost-of-living increases.
Recent blog posts here have pointed out that Pop Tarts, graham crackers and sugary flavored milk can pose as breakfast, while burgers and tater tots are lunch staples. But that won’t fly, and neither will junk food in vending machines, with recent recommendations from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) requiring more whole grains, leaner proteins, and more fruits and vegetables. Schools would need to prove compliance with new USDA guidelines based on IOM’s recommendations to be eligible for the rate increase. Further, the bill would authorized the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish national nutrition standards for all foods sold on the school campus throughout the school day, including foods sold outside the subsidized food line--so-called "competitive" foods--and vending machines.
But it’s not just about the money. The Senate draft bill improves access to free meals for children living in poverty (eliminating a multiplicity of forms), makes afterschool meals available nationally, and may expand summer and breakfast programs. It also provides resources to train school food workers and expands farm to school programs.
At the end of the day, though, the new “rules” impose costs. And the costs for the improvements that we would like to see far exceed money available. While Congress talks about the importance of funding better school and child care meals, finding the money is tough.
You wouldn’t believe what a hard-fought battle it has been to get 6 cents a meal. And the program for child care, which feeds our nation’s youngest, most vulnerable kids, doesn’t even have a rate increase included. But even 6 cents won’t cut it in terms of really making meals more nutritious. What we really need are dollars and not cents. What we really need is an overhaul in our nation’s boondoggle farm policies which subsidize crops like corn, so that corn syrup is rampant in the food supply and the unhealthiest foods are the cheapest and most accessible.
What we really need is an agriculture policy that support health and nutrition, environmental sustainability, and sound economics, so that the healthiest foods can also be the most affordable and widely available.
Until then, I fear that our nation will be plagued by obesity and its related health disorders. All the wellness policies in the world won’t help communities who can’t afford to eat healthy food or purchase healthy food nearby.
But I digress. I truly do believe that this bill is a start in the right direction, even if it’s not the giant leap forward that I’d like to see. The bill could possibly expand and pick up more funding before as it moves through the full Senate. And it sounds like the House of Representatives is committed to working toward the President’s proposed funding levels.
So what can you do? Well, most of us are here in D.C.--especially our sole representative in Congress, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton--are not represented on the committees that will influence this bill. But we all need to engage our friends and family nationwide in the effort to improve CNR to set better school meal standards and fund the increased costs.
Good nutrition is one of the easiest ways to improve health. This bill should be perceived as a companion to health care reform in terms of its potential to positively impact health for our country.
Becky Levin is a mom living on Capitol Hill and lobbies on child nutrition issues on behalf of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
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