Guest blogger: Child Nutrition Act (and what you can do)

***Our news guest blogger: Brandon Smith twitter.com/greenletters is back to share information about the Child Nutrition Act. He is investigating the latest in school lunch news. ***

When I went searching for news about school lunches, I found the main stories right now are about this website. That’s both wonderful and scary at the same time. What I mean is, these personal anecdotes are what our country needs to get the ball rolling with school lunches. (To me the “issue” is an ageist and classist injustice.) But where were the traditional news sources this week? A lot happened and it seems as though much of it was overlooked by them. I hope the journalists are just taking their time to put together really thorough reports.


Here’s the best summary of the debate surrounding the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, now known by this shiny name: “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.” (The Child Nutrition Act was originally up for reauthorization in Sept. 2009 but the deadline was extended.) This is courtesy of the Washington Post blog, All We Can Eat.

This week Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack voiced his approval of the above-mentioned Act, which was revealed March 17 to great fanfare—several health organizations and big players in the food industry back it.

But things aren’t as well and good as it would seem. Vilsack had implied, in his Feb. 23 Huffington Post article, that he was on board with the President’s recommendation—of $10 billion extra for the program over the next 10 years.
Unfortunately, in endorsing this version, Vilsack stooped to accept less than half of his original recommendation, or $4.5 billion over the next 10 years.

Here’s what he said in his press release:
“Though we believe that additional access and nutrition goals can and should be accomplished by passing a more robust bill that supports the President’s request of $10 billion in additional funding, the bipartisan announcement today is a very positive step forward.”

Vilsack is very much a big-agribusiness insider, and as much as he might be behind his boss’ plans and believe in the fuzzy big-picture goal of helping children, the “big agribusiness” way of thinking brought us to this point. School lunches aren’t funded well enough to purchase commodities other than super-discounted ones, and policy often mandates that excess commodities (no matter their nutritional relevance) be purchased for the program. This benefits massive farming operations and agriculture-related companies—not children.


How can you make a difference?

The Healthy Schools Campaign has done a great job breaking down these issues for the good of the nation’s kids.

Healthy Schools Campaign also has a way to take action, in a form letter here, that you can send to your senator with the push of a button. It urges a “strong” reauthorization of the nutrition act:

“The current proposal by Sen. Blanche Lincoln includes several excellent health-promoting policy elements, but I am concerned with the level of funding included in the bill.  The bill allocates only $450 million per year to child nutrition, a mere 45 percent of the funding proposed in Pres. Obama’s budget. This increase barely acknowledges increased food costs without beginning to provide adequate funding for healthier school meals that would truly support children’s health and academic success.

Specifically, I urge you to support a Child Nutrition Act that includes: 

* Increased funding for the school meals program, at minimum the $1 billion per year for 10 years that Pres. Obama has proposed.

* Increased quality of meals served in the school meal program; including less use of highly processed foods which are high in fat and sodium, increased fresh and high quality frozen fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and reduced overall sodium content.”

Also this week, Michelle Obama wrote a piece for Newsweek promoting her letsmove.gov. I wanted it to be longer, but I understand she has a lot going on.

A documentary on school lunch (called “Lunch”) in America premieres this week (March 22) at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, DC. Here’s an excerpt from its website:
In Lunch, a revealing documentary short, director Avis Richards investigates the causes and the consequences of “growing up in a junk-food culture.” Through numerous on-site interviews with food workers, doctors, educators, and students, Lunch provides a candid, penetrating, and disturbing account of the National School Lunch’s Program’s failure to promote the proper dietary habits to ensure our youth’s physical, social, and psychological well-being. The documentary also explores viable alternatives to the hamburger hegemony, talking with farmers and other community leaders about their efforts to put locally-grown, whole foods back on the menu and make diet and nutrition a core part of every school’s educational model.
Here’s another reminder about how bad these lunches can be: The NY Times reported on fast food beef: how it’s treated with ammonia and how bad it can be for us. Here’s a fun-but-sad story about how a mom kept a Happy Meal on a shelf for a year and it didn’t decompose at all. Talk about preservatives! Why am I talking about fast food? Because USA Today reported on how school lunch standards can be lesser than the standards for fast food.

I don’t think the decision-makers (adults in their 40s-70s) realize the extent to which we’re shafting the next generation, particularly those from lower-income families. Tom Friedman of the New York Times often opines there’s a lot of talent—genius, really—in the lower-income “brackets” that our country wastes—because we don’t give them a fighting chance. I’m sure teachers like Mrs. Q realize this all too well. How many potentially nation-altering future engineers or authors don’t do well in school because of their nutrition and lack of recess?

Brandon Smith wrote for daily newspapers in Ohio before his current gig as a Science Journalism student at Columbia College Chicago. A bio is available at brandonsmith.com/about and he tweets at twitter.com/greenletters.NOTE: all guest bloggers have contacted me of their own free will, have given consent, do not know me personally, and are not receiving compensation.
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16 Responses to Guest blogger: Child Nutrition Act (and what you can do)

  1. Ed Bruske March 21, 2010 at 4:25 pm #

    Unfortunately, the Washington Post piece by Jane Black cited as the best summary is inaccurate. The federal government increases its subsidy level for school lunches almost every year. Also, the $1 billion annually that President Obama has proposed is to be split between school meals and other federally supported meal programs. So the $450 million annual increase that Blanche Lincoln proposed must be more than half of what Obama is advocating. Still, 6 cents per meal is a paltry sum. The average school lunch program operates a deficit of 35 cents per meal. That is the minimum amount the School Nutrition Association has requested so that schools can at least break even. What's more, the Blanche Lincoln funding would be contingent on the USDA adopting new nutrition requirements proposed by the Institute of Medicine that call for boosting servings of fruits and vegetables and whole grains. The IOM estimates that these new standards would add at least 25 percent to the cost of the average school breakfast and 9 percent to the cost of the average school lunch. Six cents per meal does not come close to covering this.

  2. Ed Bruske March 21, 2010 at 4:39 pm #

    On the matter of government commodities, the school lunch program has always been tied to agricultural surpluses. In fact, the program has its roots in the Great Depression, when farmers were happy to have the government buy their crop surpluses and give them to schools. The agricultural component of the school meal program is the reason school lunch has enjoyed widespread support in Congress. About 20 percnet of the food served in schools comes from commodity crops purchased by the federal government and donated to the shcools. These days, schools typically trade the commodity donations to large food processors for finished products, which saves the schools on labor costs and food liability issues. This helps explain why schools now serve so much "ready to heat" processed food. Schools would have a tough time making ends meet without these government donations in addition to the billions of dollars the feds give to schools to subsidize school breakfast and lunch.

  3. @stepshep March 21, 2010 at 4:45 pm #

    Nice wrap-up. Bonus that you're from Ohio!

  4. Anonymous March 21, 2010 at 6:57 pm #

    Let's hope that the increased funding to schools for lunches also has a chuck specifically for TRAINING schools to prepare more healthy foods and NOT just equipping the kitchens w/ new equipment.

  5. Anonymous March 21, 2010 at 8:15 pm #

    I think that a lot needs to be done to children's nutrition programs and it starts with what we are feeding the kids. Secondly I think that we need to look at the delivery system in which kids get their food namely, those that receive free or discounted lunch. I have many friends that work in schools in more lower economic areas and they have told me that their principals actually had to bar parents of the children from entering the cafeteria because they were eating their children's breakfast and then coming back on campus at noon to "share" their child's lunches often bringing younger siblings with them. Although it is sad that they feel the need to do this for what ever reason but it seems that it defeats the purpose of the program to feed the children in the school for that they have the nutrition they need to learn. Maybe these parents need to attend a class to make their kids eligible for the program along with information on healthy eating.

  6. Anonymous March 21, 2010 at 10:55 pm #

    While living in Paris, I saw an interesting documentary, "Nos Enfants Nous Accuseront," or "That Should Not Be" in English, about a small commune in the south of France where the mayor has decided that the school cafeteria will serve only organic foods to avoid the processed, industrialized foods that are increasingly linked to astonishingly high growth rates of cancer in children throughout the country.

    Local initiatives such as the one followed in the film are going to be the grass-roots base from which a greater movement for change can grow. Clearly, even top policy makers are heavily swayed by big agri-business interests.

    Here's the link for the film: http://www.nosenfantsnousaccuseront-lefilm.com/
    (There's a synopsis in English under the 'synopsis' tab.)

  7. Ecosizeme March 21, 2010 at 11:41 pm #

    Hopefully, this will be a good segway into bringing the school lunch issue to the forefront for discussion and action.

    http://abc.go.com/shows/jamie-olivers-food-revolution

  8. Brandon March 22, 2010 at 2:48 am #

    Mr. Bruske: Thanks for the correction on the WaPo post. I suppose it's not a given that they're always accurate!

    Where did you get the 6 cents-per-meal figure? I guess what I mean is, is that from the Obama request, ($10b over 10 years) or the Blanche-Lincoln proposal ($4.5b over 10 years)? If either one of those is a 6 cent-per-meal increase, what would Ann Cooper and Alice Waters' $1-per-meal increase look like? I say, spend the dang money!

    My favorite bumper sticker reads "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber."

    http://www.stickergiant.com/bomber-bake-sale_b5729.html

  9. Mark Bishop March 22, 2010 at 12:00 pm #

    Ed, it's true that they increase the rate every year. Last year the increase was 11 cents so this proposed increase is actually just a tad more than half that. But actually this proposed $450 million annual increase IS split between programs. My understanding is that they way the bill was laid out was the intent, other than the dollar amount. WIC receives a portion. Increasing access gets a portion. Food safety gets a portion. This was always part of the plan, but it wasn't until this bill that the specific allocations were laid out. Of course I could be wrong about this.

    Brandon, the 6 cents is specifically mentioned in the legislation. The legislation allocates a 6 cent increase per reimbursable meal. This is an amount that no one should be proud of. It is half of last year's increase. It hardly will help cover the cost of food increases let along the deficits schools already run.

  10. Mark Bishop March 22, 2010 at 12:01 pm #

    And Brandon, thanks for the great wrap up. This blog is the news because Mrs. Q has really done something special here.

  11. Ed Bruske March 22, 2010 at 2:30 pm #

    Mark & Brandon, I suppose what I'm really trying to say is there's been a rush to report on the Obama proposal and the Branche Lincoln bill without a very thorough analysis of how they actually compare. I don't think anyone in the press has had a chance to do a side-by-side comparison, so I am a bit leary of all the numbers floating around and how accurate they might be. The important figure is the per-meal increase. Six cents is just woefully inadequate. The only figure I've seen for the Obama proposal is an 18-cent increase, but I don't know how accurate that is. It's the figure that Ann Cooper has been using.

  12. Whyzz March 22, 2010 at 7:04 pm #

    At whyzz.com, the source for kid-friendly answers on how the world works, we partner with qualified experts for tips and advice for talking to kids about nutrition and healthy habits – check out our talking points here:
    http://whyzz.com/talking-about-nutrition

  13. Mark BIshop March 22, 2010 at 7:17 pm #

    True. But the basic proposal of the Obama Administration was a conceptual frameword, not a bill. They were floating a single number out and knew that the details would have to be hammered out later. Their strategy was to get advocates to agree on the big package, and then determine the details later. And the 18 cents was an estimate at best.

    What the Lincoln bill did was fill in the details and slash the funding. In reality, everything that the Obama Administration has laid out from a policy perspective (FTS programs, expanding access, including USDA oversight for competitive foods etc.) was included in Lincoln's bill. The only thing that seems to be missing is the funding.

    Of course, I'm not comparing two bills. I'm comparing a conceptual framework to an actual bill. So it's not a perfect comparison.

    But this is an academic discussion because the reality is what we're left with is six cents. And a mandate to do more with less.

    Pathetic.

  14. Anonymous March 22, 2010 at 8:09 pm #

    Instead of just eating lunch, Mrs Q. should start advocating for a farm to school program. Start checking with her food service director about appying for the fresh fruit and vegetable grants and any other grant funding to increase access to fruits and vegetables for low income schools. Do the research into districts that are feeding their kids healthy meals and make a proposal to your school board sharing what you discover.

  15. Anonymous March 22, 2010 at 8:19 pm #

    I am a principal of an elementary school in California. I know that the cafeteria staff really care and really try. They follow the guidelines and try to find foods the kids will eat. The lunches are generally better than what I see in Mrs. Q's posts. I still think that mostly they aren't good. Sometimes we have a salad as a side. They make a fresh salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, shredded carrots and fresh iceburg lettuce that is actually more green than white. They toss it with a very watery ranch. I think the watery dressing is a barrier but the salad itself is very appealing. The kids will hardly ever eat it. I think the breakfasts are all sugar – poptarts, donuts, popular cereals, chocolate milk, pancakes and syrup packets. And these meals meet the CA & federal guidelines. Ick.

  16. stacie smith March 23, 2010 at 2:28 am #

    Not only is the food bad, but our kids have 10 minutes to eat it… and a single 10 minute recess in the day. My BIGGEST pet-peeves with public school.
    Often our school's food calendar has french toast sticks on the menu for both breakfast and lunch (there is a second option for lunch, but really!). One teacher was fed up with that and told her class that any kid who didn't eat the french toast could eat in her classroom.
    Has anyone had any success by boycotting the school's lunch? Maybe get the entire school or a few classes to boycott the lunches for a few days? While we're waiting and watching the $$ disappear could a protest actually work locally?

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