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School Lunch Background

School meals play a central role in ensuring our country’s youth receive the nutrition they need to grow and thrive.  Over 31 million children receive meals each day through the National School Lunch Program and over 12 million participate in the National School Breakfast Program. 

Given such numbers, school meals provide children critical access to healthful foods, while combating both food insecurity and a growing obesity epidemic. 

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, enacted on December 13, 2010 (Public Law 111-296), reauthorized funding for federal school meal and child nutrition programs such as the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, Child and Adult Care Food Program, the Summer Food Service Program, and the Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).  

The law is a step forward to improve the diet and overall health of American children.

It is the largest investment in the National School Lunch Program in more than 30 years, contributing $4.5 billion over the next 10 years. The funding is meant to increase access to healthful foods, while promoting health and wellness, not only at meal times but also within school environments.

The first of the new requirements went into effect starting in the 2012-2013 school year.

Meal Requirements

  • Aligns school meal requirements with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans and incorporates standards set by the Institute of Medicine.
  • Increases fruits and vegetables served at meals by requiring kids take at least one serving of either at meal time, in addition to increasing the variety of vegetables served by setting weekly serving requirements from subgroups that include dark green, red/orange, beans/peas, starchy and other.
  • Sets limits on saturated fat, with a strict ban on trans fat: 1.) Less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat per meal and 2.) No trans fat is allowed in any foods served; all labels must indicate zero.
  • Requires that fluid milk be fat-free if flavored and low-fat or fat-free if unflavored. Students must still use a note from their guardian or a medical note due to a disability in order to request non-dairy milk.
  • Allows commercial tofu and soy products such as soy yogurt to meet all or part of the meats/meat alternates component in school breakfast and lunch for a reimbursable meal. Mature beans and dry peas (e.g., kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, garbanzo beans/ chickpeas, black-eyed peas, split peas and lentils) were already considered appropriate as meat alternates.
  • Phases in standards that require all grains served be whole-grain rich by the 2014-2015 school year. 
  • Sets calorie minimums and maximums based on age/grade groups.
  • Puts limits on sodium with 3 incremental targets rolled out over 10 years beginning in the 2014-2015 school year with the last target restricting sodium to 740 mg by the 2022-2023 school year.
  • Requires all grains to be whole grain-rich beginning in the 2014-2015 school year.
  • Requires that water be free and easily accessible at meal times.
  • Mandates the use of a food-based menu planning approach, which places the focus on meeting food group requirements rather than nutrient calculations for meals.
  • Sets the same nutritional standards for other foods served in schools known as competitive foods such as food sold a la carte, in school stores, vending machines, snack bars, and at school events beginning in the 2014-2015 school year.
  • Changes previous offer versus serve standards by requiring that students take at least one serving of a fruit or vegetable in order for the meal to be reimbursable.

Financial Increases and Compliance Measures

  • Provides schools with a monetary incentive of 6 cents per meal when compliant with the guidelines
  • Increases the number of children eligible to receive free and reduced meals by expanding the direct certification process, in addition to setting bench markers for states to improve the certification process
  • Reduces paperwork
  • Increases program monitoring to ensure compliance with audits occurring every 3 years

Program Findings

Since the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, there have been a handful of studies evaluating the success of the program’s first year.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report evaluating lunch participation trends, challenges school food authorities (SFAs) faced implementing the changes, and the USDA's assistance with and oversight of the changes.

There was an observed decrease in school lunch participation of 1.2 million students down from a height of 31.8 million students eating school lunch daily in the 2010-2011 school year. This decrease is due to the decline in the number of students who pay the full price for school lunch meals, despite an increase in the number of students who receive lunch for free.

However, the decline in participation among students who pay full-price has been occurring since 2007-2008, before the enactment of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act. Feedback gathered from SFAs was largely negative, with emphasis placed on increases in food cost, and plate waste, in addition to difficulties faced in menu planning.

The report found that while the USDA provided a great deal of support in implementing changes, there was no documentation system in place for instances of noncompliance, allowing schools to fall through the cracks.

The GAO concluded that despite the recorded obstacles, the success of the program will improve over time.

A privately funded study from the Harvard School of Public Health comparing plate waste before and after the law was implemented found that the new requirements had a positive impact on the selection and consumption of fruits and vegetables at lunch. 

Fruit selection increased by 23 percent and vegetable consumption increased by 16.2 percent, supporting improved diet quality. Further the article stated that attempts to stop implementation of the law are unwarranted.

According to the USDA, over 90 percent of schools are successfully meeting the new meal nutrition standards in order to receive the 6-cent increased reimbursement. It is important to note that compliance with these new standards in order to receive the increased reimbursement is not the same as compliance with the dietary guidelines.

For instance, there is no limit on total fat within the nutrition standards whereas the dietary guidelines suggest 25-35% of total calories come from total fat depending on age and gender of children.

Further, an official audit of the nutritional content of school breakfast and lunch since the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act was enacted is not yet available.

What’s next?

While Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act is a step forward in ensuring children have access to healthful foods at school, it is important this momentum continues toward more positive reform. Many of the programs and funding authorized by the law expire by September 30, 2015—providing an opportunity to maintain this momentum and introduce additional changes that further support the health of our children now and in the future.

References:

1.    United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service. Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. Available at: http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Governance/Legislation/CNR_2010.htm Accessed April 8, 2014.
2.    Let’s Move. Healthy Schools. Available at: http://www.letsmove.gov/healthy-schools. Accessed April 8, 2014.
3.    U.S. Government Accountability Office. School lunch implementing nutrition changes was challenging and clarification of oversight requirements is needed.  GAO-14-104. Available at: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-104. Published January 28, 2014. Accessed April 8, 2014.
4.    Cohen J, Richardson S, Parker E, Catalano P, Rimm E. Impact of the New U.S. Department of Agriculture School Meal Standards on Food Selection, Consumption, and Waste. Am J Prev Med. 2014;46:388-394.
5.    U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA Announces Support for Smarter Lunchrooms. Release No.0037.14. Available at: http://www.fns.usda.gov/pressrelease/2014/003714. Updated March 12, 2014. Accessed April 8, 2014.  



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