On the brink of another potential government shutdown, school lunches weren’t exactly an urgent priority for Congress. However, they probably should’ve been. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (NNFKA) was scheduled for reauthorization by September 30th and Congress allowed it to expire, which means the Child Nutrition Act (CNR) will not undergo any significant updates to improve its effectiveness or efficiency in feeding millions of America’s children.
To back up, the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act is a law that governs nine federal nutrition programs, including the well-known National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and 5 other programs serving children and older adults. Congress reviews the CNR every five years as a way to strengthen the programs and make sure they are meeting the needs of the country’s children. The last reauthorization resulted in the NNFKA legislation, which was championed by the First Lady and sought to improve the nutritional quality of meals served in schools and preschools.
There’s no doubt the quality of these meals has improved and the CDC has the data to prove it. However, since the NNFKA took effect in 2012, it’s been a mixed bag in terms of implementing new nutritional standards. The School Nutrition Association (SNA) holds the position that the requirements are too strict, and many components should be rolled back due to increased food waste and decreased profits. The SNA is in favor of suspending further sodium level reductions, reversing the requirement that students have to take a fruit or a vegetable, and restoring the initial requirement that at least half of the grains offered be whole grain (rather than 100%).
In order to address some of these concerns, researchers have conducted studies to examine whether or not the new standards have actually affected food waste and consumption. In a study of middle schools in 12 schools in an urban, low-income district, researchers found that overall there was a positive response to new lunches. In fact, they determined that students actually consumed more fruit, threw away less of the lunch entrees and vegetables, and consumed about the same amount of milk. However, the study does not directly address the whole grains component of the standards. A study from the Harvard School of Public Health also found that the new standards significantly increased fruit and vegetable consumption.
So, what should be done? Should there be compromises made so that schools can have a smoother transition when implementing these standards? Or should they be encouraged to give it time and allow for students to get used to the changes? Either way, it’s clear that the CNA deserves more respect from Congress than to let the reauthorization deadline slip past. When over 21% of children live in poverty and food insecure households, millions of women, infants, and children participate in WIC, and over 500 million meals are served in CACFP homes, there should be an urgency to review the laws that help feed these vulnerable groups.
Photo source: USDA via Flickr.com