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New U.S. Senate bill means healthier lunches in schools

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse

In a unanimous vote last Thursday, the U.S. Senate approved the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act, a bill that will provide billions of dollars for child nutrition in schools.

Praised by first lady Michelle Obama as a “groundbreaking piece of legislation,” the bill allots $4.5 billion dollars over the next 10 years to increase the number of free meals and improve the quality of food in schools across the country.

The bill calls for mandatory nutrition standards for all food served in schools — including vending machine snacks and “competitive foods” sold in a la carte lines — and funding for schools to build gardens and purchase food from local vendors. The bill also increases the availability of free meals at after-school programs and during the summer recess, and increases the number of students who are eligible for free meals.

The bill represents a bi-partisan effort with Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nevada; Blanche Lincoln, D-Arkansas; Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky; and Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, leading the way.

The first lady has been a strong advocate for the bill, and for other measures that aim to eliminate childhood obesity. In a Washington Post editorial last week, Obama urged the Senate, “Right now, our country has a major opportunity to make our schools and our children healthier. It’s an opportunity we haven’t seen in years, and one that is too important to let pass by.”

The bill, if signed into law by the president, marks the first time in 30 years that the federal government has increased funding for the school lunch program.

“We owe it to the children who aren’t reaching their potential because they’re not getting the nutrition they need during the day.” Obama wrote in the editorial. “We owe it to the parents who are working to keep their families healthy and looking for a little support along the way.

“We owe it to the schools that are trying to make progress but don’t have the resources they need. And we owe it to our country — because our prosperity depends on the health and vitality of the next generation.”

Marion Nestle, professor of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, and author of “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” also praised the bill, but with some reservations.

“Although this [new funding] represents a 10-fold increase over previous (2004) funding, it works out to an additional measly six cents per meal,” she said in an interview published in The Atlantic.

While the bill offers crucial improvements to school food, much more work remains, she explained.

The Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act comes just a week after Gov. Deval Patrick signed Massachusetts’s own child nutrition legislation into law, An Act Relative to School Nutrition.

Similar to the federal bill, the Commonwealth’s new law requires the Department of Public Health to create specific nutritional guidelines for all food sold during school hours. The law also encourages schools to sell local, fresh farm produce, and requires the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in schools.

“This law is an important step toward ensuring that there are healthy choices for kids at school,” the governor said.

But proper nutrition affects more than just health, explained the Commonwealth’s Secretary of Education, Paul Reville.

Praising the new law, he said, “We recognize that academic achievement is the result of a combination of factors including high expectations and excellent teaching, but also the readiness and preparedness of students when they arrive in school.

“Nutrition plays a key role in student learning and this bill will help schools with their efforts to improve the ability of students to be successful,” the secretary said.