Congress Clears ‘Historic’ Revamp Of School Lunch Program To Counter Child Obesity And Promote Healthier Meals

Includes Leahy Plans To Multiply Farm To School Links, And To Boost Organic Foods Offered At Lunch Counters

WASHINGTON  (THURSDAY, Dec. 2) -- Congress late Thursday gave final approval to major changes in the school lunch program, including an expansion of an effort led by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to multiply links between local farms and school lunch counters.  

The bill, which President Obama supports and is expected to sign into law, is the largest single investment ever made in child nutrition programs.  The bill will also authorize an organics pilot program, also advanced by Leahy, under which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will offer competitive grants for schools to boost their offerings of organic foods and to scale up the nutritional value of the foods provided to schoolchildren under the school lunch program.

Leahy, long a leader on hunger and child nutrition issues and the most senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, called the bill “an historic investment in our children’s health," noting that it also delivers on a key component of First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to counter child obesity.  The current charter for federal support for child nutrition programs expired Sept. 30.

The fully paid for, bipartisan $4.5 billion childhood nutrition bill, which passed the House Thursday and the Senate in August, will renew and expand federal support for school lunch programs to reach more at-risk children and to improve the nutrition of school meals in several ways. 

The school meal improvements include:

  • Increasing the federal reimbursement rate per meal – the first increase in 30 years, aside from inflation adjustments -- so that schools are able to offer more nutritious food.
  • Allowing schools in high poverty areas to offer free meals to all students without collecting paper applications, increasing access to the program and reducing the administrative burden on schools.
  • Expanding the after school supper program, through which students from low-income households can receive evening meals, to all 50 states.
  • Authorizing the Secretary of Agriculture to create national nutrition standards for all food sold at schools during the day, limiting the availability of unhealthy foods sold in vending machines.
  • Improving the Women, Infants, and Children program to lessen the administrative burden on state WIC offices and to promote breastfeeding.

The bill includes $40 million in assured funding for Leahy’s Farm to School program, which encourages community-based efforts to link local farms to school lunchrooms.  This Leahy initiative will expand farm to school links through competitive grants for technical help in connecting school food service providers with local small and medium sized farms for efficient and cost-effective purchases of locally produced foods for school lunchrooms.

Despite the usual abundance of nearby farms, local farm products are largely missing from most schools’ lunch trays.  An emerging “farm to school” movement aims to fix that by matching local farms with local schools, cutting out the middleman, and scaling up students’ nutrition.  A study in Oregon last year found that every dollar invested in farm to school projects triggered $1.87 in local economic activity.

Leahy said, “Matching up farms and schools makes sense across the board, from economics to nutrition.  The school lunch program is a major food buyer in every community, so there is no need to start from scratch.  We have pent up demand for fresh local food, and ample local supplies.  It’s a natural fit for an untapped market to help expand access to quality food for school children, while we foster local farm job growth and generate local economic development.  What we need are the links and logistics to get the ball rolling.  This effort is a catalyst to forge these connections and let them flourish.”

More than 130 Vermont schools are experimenting with farm to school programs, and many more are interested.  Leahy last year brought U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to visit the Lawrence Barnes Elementary in Burlington, where Duncan learned about the school’s partnership with local farmers to provide healthy, locally grown foods and listened to teachers, parents, and students talk about challenges they face.

The farm to school movement also fits squarely into emerging strategies to counter childhood obesity such as the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign.  Today more than 30 percent of American children are obese, and the risks to children’s health are also risks to the economy, with the billions of dollars spent each year treating obesity-related conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.  The Centers for Disease Control have identified the addition of more fresh fruit and vegetables as one of six top strategies to control and prevent obesity.

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