Last month, the House of Representatives was scheduled to vote on an agricultural appropriations bill that included a new waiver process allowing local school districts to opt-out of the new nutrition requirements enacted in the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA). Weeks have gone by and still the House has not voted. Reporters who cover the food industry speculate that delays mean that a compromise is in the works, while others hedge that this is just the first pie to be thrown in a much larger food fight to come. The fact that the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, a law that vastly improves child nutrition, has come under scrutiny is a cause for concern, not just for school meals, but for child wellness in general.
But let’s backtrack for a moment.
The school meals program, which includes breakfast, lunch, snack and now dinner in some areas, serves meals to approximately 31 million children in more than 100,000 school districts across the country. Children at or below 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level are eligible for free and reduced lunch.
Four years ago advocates celebrated the bipartisan passage of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. For the first time in 30 years, the law created sweeping reforms to the school meals program and gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture unprecedented authority to set new nutrition standards for food served in schools. The new standards are based on the Institute of Medicine’s recommended nutrition standards for children and involve increasing servings of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, limiting salt and fat, and switching from whole and 2% milk to 1% and skim. In short, the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act ensures that low-income children participating in the school meals program are able to eat healthy meals, a major win for communities and families.
Yet four years later, political support has shifted for the new school lunch rules. This could not come at a worse time.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one-third of children and adolescents in America are overweight or obese. The extent of this public health crisis is even more pronounced among children of color and children in low-income communities. Obesity has been found to increase a person’s risk for a myriad of other health issues, including diabetes, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases, and various forms of cancer. The rise in obesity has brought along with it the appearance of these chronic diseases in children – diseases that had previously only ever been seen in adult patients. Furthermore, obesity in children dramatically increases the risk of obesity into adulthood. This has already placed enormous strain on our health care and economic systems, and promises to do so into the future if current trends are not adequately addressed.
There are a number of strategies to curb the childhood obesity epidemic. One important strategy includes ensuring that children are served healthy meals in school while reducing the availability of unhealthy foods. The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act is a key component in that effort, and it is particularly important for children at high risk of obesity. And evidence shows that children like the new, healthier meals. According to a new survey of school administrators released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, respondents at 70 percent of schools surveyed reported students liked the new meals by the end of the first year of implementation of the new rules. Given these signs that the law is doing as intended, we are left to wonder why lawmakers would want to change it.
As we work tirelessly to help children and their families obtain coverage and access health care, we want to remind folks of the importance of working in concert with other policies that help keep children healthy. For health advocates, this means supporting policies beyond coverage – such as the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. As we move forward, it will be important for all of us to integrate the important work of pediatricians inside the doctors’ office with community-based services and the policies that guide them. The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act is an important step to ensure that our environment promotes childhood well-being and does not hinder or degrade it. We will continue to highlight policies that promote children’s health and wellbeing – stay tuned.