Congress Can Help Prevent Diabetes with Healthy School Lunches

April 21, 2016
Karen Perry Stillerman
Sr. Strategist and Sr. Analyst, Food & Environment Program

From Freddie Gray to the Flint drinking water crisis, the reality of historic and systemic racial inequality in America is making headlines. Communities of color and low-income communities also face deep-rooted inequities in our food system, including unequal access to healthy foods. Cutting school lunches for millions of low-income kids would only exacerbate this inequality, but Congress seems poised to do just that.

US Department of Agriculture/flickr

Photo: US Department of Agriculture/flickr

Earlier this week, UCS released new findings about what unequal access to healthy food means for peoples’ health. Diabetes, a diet-related disease that is ravaging families and communities, hits communities of color and those with low incomes the hardest. As my colleague and study author Lindsey Haynes-Maslow says, “a person’s ZIP code affects their chances of developing diabetes.” Lindsey examined county-level data across all U.S. counties, and found that having an additional healthy food retailer per 1,000 residents was associated with a small but significant decrease in a county’s diabetes rate. But the effect is three times larger in counties with above-average populations of color.

Lindsey’s report is the second in our series making the case for the next president to pay attention to our outdated, unhealthy, and inequitable food system and put in place a comprehensive national food policy to address it.

For many children, improving healthy food access starts at school

But well before the next president takes office, there’s a lot we can do to make healthy food more available to people who really need it. The national school lunch program and related federally-subsidized meal and snack programs are an obvious place to start.

We’ve written a lot over the past year or so about why it’s so important to ensure that children—especially low-income children of color—receive at least a half-cup of fruits and vegetables every day in taxpayer-subsidized school lunches. We’ve argued that it’s a bad idea to roll back that critically important minimum standard set by Congress and the USDA, or to weaken requirements aimed at reducing the sodium content and boosting the whole grain content of school meals, both of which help to reduce the amount of highly processed junk foods on kids’ lunch trays. And we’ve critiqued School Nutrition Association (and its corporate sponsors) for their role in efforts to reverse progress on healthy school food.

For months, legislation to update and reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was mostly stalled in Congress. Then in January, a Senate committee considered and unanimously approved a bipartisan bill that would preserve the law’s most important gains. Their colleagues in the House haven’t yet acted, but it appears they are poised to do so…and with decidedly partisan and potentially disastrous results.

The draft House bill isn’t all bad. It would raise the reimbursement rate for schools serving free lunches (something UCS has called for) by 2 cents per meal. But it would also take several steps backward, for example, opening the door to more pizza and French fries in schools, allowing frozen and canned fruits and vegetables to substitute for fresh produce, weakening the whole grain standard, and delaying implementation of sodium reductions. And as Politico reported last week, there is something else lurking in the draft that could blow up much of the progress made since 2010.

House bill could take free lunch away from millions of low-income kids

The draft bill—which as House committee is expected to consider as early as next week—includes a dramatic change to the existing law’s so-called “community eligibility provision,” of CEP. It’s a complicated and little-known provision, but essentially it allows schools with high poverty rates to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students without the need to document individual household incomes. Administrators at schools with large proportions of low-income children like the CEP because it reduces paperwork for them and poverty stigma for kids, and it ensures that all students who need free and reduced-price meals will get them.

The House draft would make it harder schools to qualify for CEP by requiring that 60 percent of their students prove their eligibility for meal assistance, rather than the current bar of 40 percent. According to an analysis by the smart folks at Politico (click and scroll down for the relevant story):

If a school has 40 percent of its students directly certified, which means that a student already qualifies for other programs like SNAP, it is likely to have some 65 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-price meals. If a school is 60 percent directly certified — the threshold the House bill suggests — then around 96 percent of students in that school would likely qualify for free and reduced-price meals. So in real terms, schools with between 65 and 96 percent of their students qualifying for nutrition assistance would likely have to drop CEP.

If that happened, millions of low-income children could be out of luck. Again.

As UCS has just shown, better access to healthy food is important for bringing down diabetes rates among the most vulnerable Americans. With diabetes rates in children and young people on the rise, and medical science still working on solutions to reverse diet-related diabetes once people have it, it seems prevention is our best bet for sparing our kids and our neighbors’ kids a lifetime of suffering.

Free and reduced-price meals and more and better nutrition education at school are a critical way to address inequity by increasing healthy food access for low-income children and children of color. And they work. It would be a terrible shame to effectively yank that lifeline away from millions of kids.