As another academic year kicks into full gear and students across the country return to school, longtime supporters of a 2010 law that updated nutritional standards for cafeteria meals have reason to remain calm amid uncertainty about its future.
A national poll shows that more than 80 percent of Americans support healthy school meals consisting of more fruit and vegetables and less high calorie and sodium food choices, requirements outlined in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act — a law that authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to set nutritional standards for food sold and distributed in schools and expanded access to healthy lunch to more than 115,000 U.S. children.
The survey, conducted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, debunks the primary argument against the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, one of the central policies at the heart of First Lady Michelle Obama’s effort to address childhood obesity. Two-thirds of respondents rated the nutritional quality of cafeteria food as “excellent” or “good.” Additionally, more than 90 percent of those surveyed said it’s somewhat or very important to serve nutritious foods in schools and strengthen children’s cognitive abilities.”
“Our survey found that people in the U.S. overwhelmingly support strong nutrition standards and believe school meals are healthier and on the right track because of these standards,” La June Montgomery Tabron, president and chief executive of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, told the New York Times.
If lawmakers reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act next month, schools would receive $4.5 billion over the next decade. With time dwindling before it’s set to expire, its supporters and challengers have scrambled to make their case, drawing out a battle that started shortly after its passage and holding nothing back in the process.
Since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’s inception, the program has expanded, serving more than one million students across the United States not only lunch, but dinner too as part of its after-school snack offerings. The UDSA also rolled out $5 million in grants to fund programs that connect school cafeterias with local farmers. The 2014 grant cycle supported more than 80 projects in 42 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In total, more than $385 million in locally grown produce has entered school buildings across the country.
But GOP lawmakers remain unsatisfied, calling the law an example of executive overreach and a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Opponents also argue that adhering to the law has financially burdened some school districts, passing legislation that would allow states to opt out of changes for a year. The School Nutrition Association (SNA), a national lobbying group, called for changes including the reduction of whole grain rich from 100 to 50, stalling of changes to sodium levels until 2017, and elimination of requirements that students have a half cup of fruits or vegetables with every meal.
While SNA and other Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act opponents say that reauthorization would allow for these revisions, proponents say the law in its current form prevent students from spiraling down a road of unhealthy diet choices.
A growing body of research support such calls to keep the status quo. Last year, researchers at Ohio State University found that high consumption of fast food — often replete with salt and sugar and low in calcium, iron, Vitamin C, and zinc — causes some memory loss and slows down cognitive development in children. An unbalanced diet can also widen waistlines, especially among young people. Rates of childhood obesity have more than doubled in the last 30 years, bringing with it additional instances of cancer and higher hospitalization costs.
A nutritious breakfast and hour of physical activity has been proven to improve brain function, but some parents don’t take these words to heart: 90 percent of homemade school lunches include deserts, chips, and sweetened nondairy products.
Experts say a balanced diet that includes bread, fruits and vegetables, dairy, meat, and fish can ward off excessive weight and pave the way for positive health outcomes. For some Americans, however, it’s hard to prepare healthy meals because they live in areas with high food insecurity, where the nearest grocery store is more than a mile away. Funds from the Supplemental Nutritional Program haven’t sufficed in connecting low-income people with high quality meals. Additionally, parents’ unpredictable work schedules may preclude parents from engaging their children for dinner, let alone preparing a healthy meal.
That’s why members of the American Heart Association (AHA) have spoken out in recent weeks in support of keeping, and perhaps strengthening, the requirements outlined in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. They particularly point to high levels of sodium found in frozen and junk food that, when ingested consistently, can lead to heart disease or stroke.
“Our children are healthier because of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act,” Kristy Anderson, government relations manager at the American Heart Association, told an NBC Los Angeles affiliate. “We know that the more children are exposed to nutritious foods, the more they accept and like eating healthy — and it sets them up for a lifetime of healthy eating habits. So our message is stay the course.”