The New Child Nutrition Act – Will 6 cents make a difference?

On Thursday afternoon, Congress passed the “Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act”. This happens once every 5 years, when the government reviews and re-approves the Child Nutrition Act. The law provides federal funding for feeding millions of schoolchildren lunch and sometimes breakfast for free or greatly reduced prices.

Some of the highlights of the reauthorized law:

  • $4.5 Billion dollars added to improve the nutritional value of meals served in schools.
  • Improved nutrition criteria – more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, less sugars and fats.
  • More children – the criteria for eligibility has been expanded to include additional families / schools. The numbers are staggering – 31 million kids participate in the program in some form.
  • Farm to fork programs encouraged – Schools to work directly with local farms to provide fresh, local produce.
  • USDA to define, within 2 years, guidelines for food sold in schools outside the meal programs (This includes all the crap currently found in vending machines).

What you need to know:

As good as this may sound, here a few reasons why there is a still a long way to go:

  • An average school lunch costs $2.72 today. The addition of funds just approved gets translated to a measly 6 cents addition per meal. How much of a difference will that make?
  • Much of the food available for such cheap prices is exactly the type of foods kids should not be consuming – sugars and fats. The foods schools can afford are based on surplus agricultural commodities. Unfortunately, that means things like high fructose corn syrup, not heirloom tomatoes.
  • At the end of the day, even the most highly motivated kitchen staff needs to work a lot harder to shell out a nutritious meal that is also tasty. This is difficult to do with much higher budgets (College campuses, Google’s Headquarters in Northern California). But how motivated will the kitchen staff be, to work twice as hard, for salaries that will not be raised?
  • Some of the added money is actually taken from food stamp funds. For poor kids, that’s less food at home, more at school.

In conclusion, while this law is a step in the right direction, there are still many obstacles to feeding children healthfully.

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  • Ed Bruske

    You really need to brush up on the commodoties program in school food. Schools get credit toward purchases of federally donated food stuff with every meal they serve. The foods they select most often are meat, such as beef, chicken and pork. And, yes, they do purchase lots of tomatoes in the form of canned tomatoes or sauce for pasta. I don’t know where you think high fructose corn syrup enters the picture. As far as I know, it’s not on the list of things schools can purchase through the program. Schools can, of course, opt to have their commodities “diverted” to large processors, who turn them into frozen pizza and the like. Maybe a small amount high-fructose corn syrup ends up in those products. But mostly what schools get are chicken nuggets, beef “teriyaki bites,” chicken patties, breadkfast quesadillas, etc.

  • Charlotte

    A family member of mine works at a school “kitchen” for elementary school. Sometimes she has brought home left over food, and the crap they serve there is amazing. Deep fried chicken on a white bread bun? “pizza” slices? I wouldn’t even call what they have pizza…

    And as long as grain is a “vegetable” they’re going to continue shoving that into the kids, because that’s cheapest and “what kids will eat”.

    And $2.72 for a meal? I can feed my family of 3 a healthy dinner for that amount. But yes, it involves peeling some carrots and chopping some onions. I know, effort. If I go back to my family members kitchen, they don’t even prepare the food at their school, but get it shipped in each morning from another school kitchen. So, unfortunately they can’t make a different, unless the other schools in the district want to make a different. :(

    I just know when my son starts school, he is NOT eating the school lunches…

  • WilliamB

    Ed – chicken nuggets, teriyaki bites, etc, usually have HFCS in them.

    Charlotte – a commercial kitchen (or “kitchen” as you aptly put it) must include a dollar value for the cost of labor. At home we don’t. My prediction is that the $2.72 per kid per meal can only be used for food and not redirected toward labor or equipment. Unfortunately.

  • Mark

    WilliamB, actually the $2.72 per lunch does include labor and overhead – usually not equipment though. When all is said and done, schools have between 70 cents to a dollar to spend on food, and the rest goes to other non-food costs. So when you think about it that way, it’s really hard to feed a family on less than a dollar in food costs.

  • WilliamB

    Mark – good to know about those costs. Lessee, I know of a woman who spends $100/week to feed her family of 6 (oldest kid is 11) 20 meals a week; I think her bulk wheat and meat purchases are separate so say $1 per meal per person not including labor – of which there is a bunch.

    A further problem is that some large proportion of school “kitchens” don’t have kitchen equipment, another cost to cover.