This week, House Republicans are introducing a bill that would undo much of the progress schools have made in offering healthier lunches in the past two years. Since 2012, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act has mandated that schools provide more fruits and vegetables, while cutting down on trans-fat, sodium and calories.
The GOP spending bill released Monday would allow schools to apply for waivers if they show financial loss due to school food programs over a period of six months. Supporters claim current health standards are restrictive and costly, arguing that waivers will provide schools with greater flexibility and allow them to cut down on waste.
However, opponents, such as Mark Bishop, Vice President of Policy at Healthy Schools Campaign, contend, “what some people call greater flexibility other people call gutting the nutrition standards.” He added that passing the bill would mean “rolling back the years of progress that we have made with improving the health nutrition in our nation’s schools.” Prior to application of the new health standards, researchers studying Michigan public schools found that children who ate school lunch were 29 percent more likely to be obese than those who brought lunch from home.
With more than 32 million children participating in the National School Lunch Program, critics like Bishop have argued that relaxing health regulations could lead to a rise in already staggering rates of childhood obesity, which has more than quadrupled in children and adolescents over the past 30 years. More than 100 nutrition and children’s advocacy groups have signed a petition against the proposed legislation, and Michelle Obama has vowed to fight the bill.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that 90 percent of schools are meeting current standards. Additionally, they argue that the Department of Agriculture has already responded to needs for greater flexibility by eliminating weekly maximums for grains and protein foods and making adjustments to school lunch pricing requirements. In a study of four low-income Massachusetts schools, Harvard University researchers also found that, current regulations cause “students to consume more fruits and vegetables without leading to an increase in the amount of food thrown away.”
The biggest funder behind the bill has been the potato lobby, which spent $120,000 in support of the bill last year alone. The potato lobby fought proposals for tighter USDA regulations on white potatoes in 2011 and continues to spend huge amounts to oppose health regulations that target fatty foods like french fries. The potato lobby donates to Democrats as well as Republicans.
The school lunch program primarily benefits poor children, as 21 million out of the total 32 million children enrolled in the program eat free or reduced-price meals. As students of color are the largest demographic served by the program and experience a much higher risk of childhood obesity than white children, the House Republicans’ bill, if passed, is sure to disproportionately harm communities of color.
Today, one-third of American adolescents are overweight or obese. Research has shown that childhood obesity results in $19,000 on average in medical costs throughout an individual’s lifetime, meaning increased childhood obesity could put significant strain on the healthcare system. Dr. William H. Dietz, a director at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention stated, “this may be the first generation of children that has a lower life span than their parents.”
Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.