Bill tackles hunger and childhood obesity by improving school meals and eliminating junk food

The U.S. House of Representatives passed landmark child nutrition legislation today, providing the biggest increase in funding for the school lunch program in decades. The bill makes it easier for qualified children to receive free school meals, extends after-school meals to more at-risk children, and provides additional technical assistance to local school food service providers. And, when signed into law by President Obama, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act sets the stage for the elimination of soda and other junk foods from schools nationwide.

The bill’s passage is the second big victory won by food policy advocates in the lame-duck session of Congress this week. The Senate passed historic food safety legislation Tuesday.

“Simultaneously tackling childhood obesity and hunger, this bipartisan bill gets a lot of junk food out of schools and a lot of healthier food into schools,” said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The bill requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update its nutrition standards for foods that can be sold through vending machines, a la carte lines, and elsewhere on school grounds. Current standards are 30 years out of date and apply only to the cafeteria during mealtimes.

In addition to providing higher reimbursement rates for school lunches, the bill includes several no-cost provisions to strengthen school food finances, increasing the funds available for healthy school food. The bill sets schools on a path to gradually increase the price of paid school meals to make them comparable to the reimbursements USDA provides for free meals; it provides guidance to schools about which indirect costs are allowable; and ensures that money meant for healthy school meals is not diverted to subsidizing junk food sold through a la carte lines in the cafeteria.

“More American children depend on the school lunch and breakfast programs than ever before, and this act will ensure that those meals are more nutritious than ever,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “CSPI has been trying to get junk food out of schools for three decades.”

Besides CSPI, some 1,350 health, education, and anti-hunger groups supported passage of the bill, which even gained the support of many major food companies. The bill enjoyed the vocal support of the Administration, particularly First Lady Michelle Obama, whose Let’s Move initiative is focused on reducing childhood obesity.

“I’m glad the House of Representatives rejected the know-nothing nincompoopism of Sarah Palin, who apparently thinks junk food in schools is good for families,” Wootan said. “Most parents want the lunch money they send off with their kids to be spent on healthy meals and snacks, not on sugary drinks and candy bar. It's disappointing that the Republican leadership decided to play politics with the bill—and children's health. The last-minute Republican amendment, concerning background checks for child-care workers, was a transparent attempt to kill the bill, which would have left children less healthy and more hungry.”