A senate panel last week unanimously approved the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010,” clearing it for a final vote.   The legislation is a re-vamping of the Child Nutrition Act, originally passed in 1966.  Portions of the original act were permanent, while others required re-authorization in five year increments.  The school lunch program reaches roughly 31 million students a day, the majority of whom qualify for free or reduced price meals.  In addition to expanding the number of children eligible for free or reduced price meals, the bill makes efforts to address existing food safety and nutrition goals.

Food Safety in School Lunches

Concerns over the safety of school lunches, and in particular the potential for the presence of foodborne pathogens, have been well documented.  USA Today ran a series of articles detailing some of the problems, and stated that, “23,000 children were sickened by food they ate at school from 1998 through 2007.”  The paper’s investigation also revealed that approximately 26,000 schools had not had their mandatory twice-yearly inspections. http://content.usatoday.com/topics/topic/School+Lunch+Safety

In September of 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report, also calling into question the safety of school lunches.  The GAO report especially highlighted deficiencies of notifications to schools of the potential presence of recalled foods in school lunches, and other recall procedures.  As an example, it was estimated that 37 million of the 143 million pounds of meat recalled by Westland/Hallmark in 2008 made its way into school lunches.  More recently, schools had difficulty in assessing whether meat recalled in January, 2010 by Huntington Meats was in schools or not

In 2001, an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 was traced to ground beef in a taco meal served at the Finley Elementary School in Finley, Washington.   The litigation that followed eventually made its way to the Washington State Supreme Court, where the $4.6 million dollar verdict on behalf of the sickened children was upheld

The new bill contains proposals aimed at eliminating or reducing these problems.  The act provides new direction to USDA to develop advance warning systems for schools when a food product is recalled.  In addition, new and additional training and qualification standards for school cafeteria staff would be put in place.  

Nutrition and School Lunches

To properly provide for the nation’s children, the school lunch program has to provide food that goes beyond being simply free of pathogens.  The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 also takes aim at this goal.  The bill has new nutrition standards, written by the USDA, to be based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine (IOM). 

The IOM recommendations make the expanding child obesity crisis a focal point:  “Children in the United States are becoming more overweight and obese, putting them at risk for serious health concerns such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and elevated cholesterol and blood pressure levels.”

The IOM recommendations are based on 13 standards, which include:
Standard 1: Snacks, foods, and beverages meet the following criteria for dietary fat per portion as packaged:  No more than 35 percent of total calories from fat; less than 10 percent of total calories from saturated fats; and zero trans fat.

Standard 2: Snacks, foods, and beverages provide no more than 35 percent of calories from total sugars per portion as packaged. (With some exceptions for types of 100 percent juice and milk)

Standard 3: Snack items are 200 calories or less per portion.

Standard 4: Snack items meet a sodium content limit of 200 mg or less per portion as packaged or 480 mg or less per entrée portion.

Standard 5: Beverages containing nonnutritive sweeteners are only allowed in high schools after the end of the school day.

Standard 6: Foods and beverages are caffeine-free, with the exception of trace amounts of naturally occurring caffeine-related substances.

Standard 9: Sports drinks are not available in the school setting, with limited exceptions for student athletes. 

These standards are aimed in large part at “trimming the excess from school foods and beverages.”   In particular, the guidelines are meant to reduce dietary fats; added sugars; “nonnutritive” sweeteners and soda; flavored, carbonated, and fortified waters; caffeine, and sports drinks.

The IOM also recommends that marketing of foods and beverages at schools should be limited as well.   This includes eliminating vending machines with corporate logos, or that suggest that the vended items have social or health benefits.  

Thankfully, the act provides at least some, albeit limited, financial resources for schools to meet these new goals.  The act provides that schools that implement the new rules would receive an additional 6 cents per meal added to the federal reimbursement rate. 

The bill overall provides $4.5 billion to child nutrition programs, short of the $10 billion increase that had been sought by the Obama administration.  Still, on paper, these appear to be excellent goals and well intentioned guidelines, provided with at least some financial support.