Thousands more children will have access to healthier meals this year, thanks to recent government reforms that encourage schools to provide more nutritious offerings.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed in December of last year, requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to update school nutrition requirements for the first time in 15 years – and increases federal subsidies to school meal programs, a rate which has not increased since 1980.
The USDA is currently reviewing more than 132,000 comments on its proposed changes to nutrition standards in schools, announced Under Secretary Kevin Concannon during a conference call Monday.
The new rules are based on recommendations from experts at the Institute of Medicine, and include increasing the availability of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and low-fat milk, and set limits on the levels of calories and saturated fat in foods.
This would be the first time that a calorie maximum has been implemented for school lunches, says Concannon.
Historically, the government was worried about children not getting enough food, a problem highlighted during World War II, when many young men were deemed ineligible for military due to insufficient calorie intake during childhood, explained former Major General D. Alan Youngman, also during Monday’s call.
Today, though, as the country faces a rising obesity epidemic, the problem is exactly the opposite, he says. Now “One of the biggest reasons the majority of all young Americans are ineligible for military service is physical fitness,” says Youngman. “And by that we mean in most cases obesity.”
While USDA works on developing its final set of nutritional standards, scheduled to be released in January of next year, several aspects of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids act are already in place.
An expansion of the At-Risk Afterschool Meals Program is estimated to provide dinner to an additional 140,000 children in low-income areas, and more than 400,000 foster care children will now automatically have access to free meals under the Categorical Eligibility for Foster Children provision.
USDA has also issued guidance for schools on how to expand the reach of their breakfast programs, and has taken steps to ensure that children already receiving benefits from other meal subsidy programs – such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) – receive “Direct Certification,” meaning that they qualify for free school lunches without having to complete additional paperwork.
“During this economy we have seen a significant increase in enrollment in the SNAP and the food stamp program, but we’ve seen a trailing increase in the rate of enrollment in the school meals program, particularly free and reduced,” says Concannon. The government hopes to reverse this trend by providing increased funding and technical assistance to the Direct Certification program.
And many schools are stepping up to meet new nutrition requirements before they are officially issued. By June of this year, 1,250 schools had met the HealthierUS School Challenge, promoted by First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, which offered gold, silver and bronze-level certifications to schools that increased food standards, implemented nutrition education programs and encouraged physical activity among students.
“I want to recognize the hundreds of schools that have already made great progress toward achieving school meal reforms – and can serve as models for others seeking to make improvements,” said Concannon. “By fueling our nation’s children with the healthiest foods possible while at school, we can reinforce the healthy lifestyles that many parents are already teaching their children at home.”