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Lunchroom Talk: Reauthorization of the Childhood Nutrition Act

Amidst all the brouhaha over Health Care Reform another major legislative act, vital to millions of America’s school children, is up for renewal and expires on September 30, 2009.

The Childhood Nutrition Act of 1996, last reauthorized in 2004, subsidizes the Free Lunch Program as well as the Free Breakfast Program. The program is still based in large measure on the USDA Dietary Guidelines of 1995. The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was established as a national security measure in 1943.

The purpose of the NSLP, as summarized in the enabling legislation, is

“As a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food.” (National School Lunch Act, P.L. 79-396, Stat. 281 (June 4, 1946): §2).

The NSLP was incorporated into the omnibus Child Nutrition Act of 1996 and the Breakfast Program was initiated as a pilot program and made permanent in 1975. In 2007, the NSLP fed an estimated 30.5 million students per day as well as 10.2 million for breakfast. This reauthorization comes in the midst of an epidemic of  obesity in the United States, which particularly impacts children. Consider the numbers below.

Childhood Obesity Rates

Recent revelations regarding corn syrup and trans fat based-cooking oils will definitely be considerations. Although not directly related to the school lunch program, many districts have moved to curb the availability of sugar-laden soda to students. Thirty-three states already have sales taxes on soda. Just this week, the Wall Street Journal reported on a report released online by the NE Journal of Medicine on the increased health risks associated with drinking soda.

‘The science base linking the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages to the risk of chronic diseases is clear,’ the authors wrote. ‘Escalating health-care costs, and the rising burden of diseases related to poor diet, create an urgent need for solutions, thus justifying government’s right to recoup costs.’ (New Report Argues for Tax on Soft Drinks. Wall Street Journal, Sept. 16, 2009.)

Clearly these issues lap over into the health care debate and, in my view, into the education reform debate. The Obama administration has proposed a $1 billion increase in funding for the Child Nutrition Act. I’m not sure what that will buy. Districts currently are reimbursed $2.68 to $2.70 for each free lunch they serve. Many advocates would like this increased by $1 per child to facilitate more healthy choices such as more whole grains and locally grown produce. Given the array of competing priorities confronted by districts in the current fiscal climate, this may well be one of those “we’d love to but …” issues without adequate funding and a mandate. Finally, in the current recession, even more families and children have fallen into poverty putting more strain on school breakfast and lunch programs.

In 2008, more than one in three – 35.3% – of all people living in poverty were children. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) projects that with the continuing deterioration in the labor market, by 2009 a quarter of all children in this country will be living in poverty and by 2010 the child poverty rate will be 26.6%. With our heightened awareness of national security in the first decade of the 21st century we would do well to remind  Congress that the health and welfare of our children is just as vital to our national defense today as it was in 1946.

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