Something Good

December 3rd, 2010 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on Something Good

… or as Jackson Browne would sing, “Something Fine.” The headlines that have dominated the American political system lately have become… well, embarrassing. Let’s see, there’s been Wikileaks, the uproar over who can touch you and how much so at the airport, and of course, let’s not forget the challenges facing Bristol Palin as she endured her quest to be champion of Dancing with the Stars. Yep, I’m not making this up. This Dancing with the Stars mania even reached the front pages of many national publications who claim to deliver serious news. Ugh.

But, fortunately, we do have a bit of good (and serious) news to report and it certainly fits in well with our narrative in the food and health industry. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed both chambers of Congress yesterday.

The Democrat-led House voted Thursday to send President Obama a bill that would enable more poor children to receive free meals at school, raise the nutritional quality of cafeteria fare and reduce the junk food and sugary beverages sold in school vending machines. […]

The bill, a priority for the president and first lady Michelle Obama, would boost spending on child nutrition $4.5 billion over 10 years and raise federal reimbursements for school lunches more than the inflation rate for the first time since 1973. It also would require for the first time that free drinking water be available where meals are served.

The bill accelerates the budding healthful-food movement in public education – think whole wheat pizza with low-fat cheese and low-sodium sauce – but leaves unanswered key questions about whether schools can afford to give tens of millions of students better meals.

As Steve Benen with The Washington Monthly noted, “The funding mechanism for this relatively inexpensive bill was far from ideal. Meals for low-income children, unlike tax cuts for millionaires, apparently have to be paid for, and sponsors were forced to take money from the food-stamp program in order to offset the costs of the child nutrition bill. Proponents hope to fix this down the road.” The bill looks to expand access to subsidized meals for needy children and ensure that those meals have more whole grains, lean proteins and fruits and vegetables. The national school lunch program serves 31 million children, with more than 62 percent receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

According to the Washington Post key provisions of the legislation would:

– Use Medicaid data in some states to enroll children automatically for free meals. That would add about 115,000 new students each year to the program. Experts say needy families often fail to fill out paperwork required to show their eligibility. This provision would address that problem.

– Expand an after-school supper program for the needy – now offered in the District, Maryland and 12 other states – to all states. Doing so would provide an additional 21 million meals annually.

– Authorize the establishment of nutrition standards for all food and beverages sold on school grounds throughout the school day. Currently, the government’s regulatory scope is limited to cafeterias during hours when meals are served. This provision, advocates say, would force out sugary beverages and snacks and clear the way for more healthful food and drinks to be offered through a la carte sales at snack bars and vending machines.

– Raise the federal reimbursement by 6¢ per lunch for school districts that comply with new meals standards to be issued by the Agriculture Department. The reimbursement rate is now $2.72 for each free lunch, which most school administrators say is insufficient to cover costs. The 6¢ increase, like the base rate, would be indexed to inflation.

Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association described the bill as “our best chance” for getting more money for school meals. “Whether a child is in the cafeteria ordering a school meal or in front of a vending machine or in an a la carte line,” she said, “they’ll be receiving a consistent message about healthy food choices.”

The process of our two major deliberative bodies can be quite frustrating and painful to watch at times. At least both parties can come to some agreement when it concerns the health and well being of our children.