Will Healthy School Food be Jeopardized by Political Games?

June 21, 2011

The year 2010 ended with good news for Americans who support healthier school food: with overwhelming support, President Obama signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. This is a bill that, among other things, will improve nutrition standards for school food, increase the reimbursements that schools receive for the meals they serve (by about six cents per meal), and increase access to school food. 

This came after nearly two years of advocacy for healthy school food and was widely regarded as a good step forward for kids’ health. However, it seems that passing and signing a bill doesn’t necessarily mean an end to the political games. 

Last week, on June 16, the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee passed an agriculture spending bill. In addition to cutting funding for many public food programs, the committee attached language to the bill [pdf, see page 42] that directs the USDA “to issue a new proposed rule that would not require an increase in the cost of providing school meals.” In other words, the committee’s note instructs the USDA to disregard the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act’s requirement for more healthful school lunch guidelines.

What does this really mean? Well, there’s good news and bad news. 

First, the good news: this language isn’t going to do anything. 

This statement does not have the power of legislation, is not likely to wind up in any final bill or likely to be considered binding by the USDA. In fact, blogger Ed Bruske of Better D.C. School Food reported

“(the USDA) will not back away from proposed guidelines for more expensive school food despite demands from Republican lawmakers that the agency eliminate any requirements that would increase the cost of the federally-subsidized school meals program.”

We don’t need to worry that the new nutrition standards will disappear before they even get here.

The bad news is equally simple: this political maneuver brings attention to the reality that we have elected representatives who support attempts to derail efforts to improve school food.

While this specific challenge to the child nutrition law and the USDA’s authority will likely fade away when the bill is brought up by the US Senate, it will not be the last challenge we see.

The last few years have seen great momentum for improving school food. Although we have a new law in place and are seeing positive changes in schools around the country, we can’t let this momentum for advocacy stop: raising your voice for healthy school food is just as important as ever. Our friends at the Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project have an online action center where you can send a letter voicing your continued support. Click here to send a letter.