After years of a partisan food fight, the Senate Agriculture Committee will vote tomorrow on bipartisan legislation reauthorizing federal child nutrition programs, including taxpayer-subsidized breakfast, lunch, and snack programs in the nation’s schools. The new act, Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016, was introduced by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) this morning.
The good news: the bill protects fruits and vegetables on kids’ lunch trays and significantly increases funding for the Farm to School grant program. The not-so-good news: the bill scales back whole grain content and delays implementation of sodium reduction targets.
Current school nutrition standards
In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA)—which brought nutrition standards for schools into accord with federal dietary guidelines. Currently, school nutrition standards require that all grains be “whole grain-rich” (at least 50 percent whole grain), milk is lower-fat, and that all students take ½ cup minimum of fruits and vegetables with every federally funded meal. Additionally, sodium levels were supposed to be lowered in three phases: with Target 1 limits starting in July 2014, Target 2 in July 2017, and the final target in July 2022.
Proposed school nutrition standards
The proposed school nutrition standards under the Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016 have three important takeaways: 1) fruit and vegetable requirements are left intact, 2) whole-grain-rich foods are scaled back, and 3) sodium targets are delayed.
I applaud Senators Stabenow and Roberts for maintaining the fruit and vegetable requirement, as these are crucial food groups for maintaining a healthy weight and preventing diet-related chronic diseases.
The HHFKA mandate that all grains be 100% whole-grain-rich has been scaled back to 80% whole-grain-rich. Basically this means that kids will be eating grains that are only 40% whole grain. Whole grains are an important part of the school lunch equation because they provide children with much needed nutrients, including high dietary fiber content that leaves children feeling fuller longer. High fiber intake among adults has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and Type II diabetes. Opponents of the whole-grain-rich standard were hoping to roll back whole-grain content standards to 50 percent, so the Senate Agriculture Committee compromised with 80 percent.
Thirdly, schools will now get more time to implement sodium Target 2 limits—from July 2017 to July 2019. There is also a hold on the final sodium target limits until further research is conducted. Earlier this year, opponents of the sodium targets told Congress that their students were at increased risk of harm due to reduced sodium levels in school foods. However, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on children’s eating habits show that 90 percent of kids eat too much sodium daily.
A few other noteworthy items in the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act: Congress will continue to provide technical assistance and training to schools participating in the school lunch program to help them comply with nutrition standards. Schools struggling with maintaining nutrition standards are eligible to receive further assistance. Additionally, Congress will offer loans to schools needing to update their school cafeteria kitchen equipment. The bill also significantly increases the size of the USDA Farm to School Grant program, reflecting the success the program has had delivering healthy, local foods to school cafeterias over the past several years. Ultimately, this increase will create more opportunities to connect farmers, kids, and schools throughout the country.
UCS thoughts on the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act
Last year, UCS released the report Lessons from the Lunchroom: Childhood Obesity, School Lunch, and the Way to a Healthier Future, which documents the importance of healthy school food, and how it can change kids’ eating habits for the better.
While the Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016 is not perfect—particularly as evidenced by scaling back on whole grains and delays to the sodium reduction targets—we are cautiously optimistic about the improvements. Most importantly, the bill sets a strong line on fruit and vegetable servings and significantly increases Farm to School Grant program funding. These improvements would not have been possible without Ranking Member Stabenow’s leadership.