There has been a lot of buzz around the internet lately about the Child Nutrition Act. Michelle Obama has been talking a lot about it, declaring that the Senate should act now and pass the bill while they still can.
Many articles and blogs have been lit up about the legislature's inability to pass the bill, which is mostly just an extension of the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 that establishes a National School Lunch Program. Last week the Senate passed the bill finally and sites across the internet have been proclaiming this a victory for children everywhere. But...none of the articles I read exactly said why it was a victory. Everyone from the smallest blog to the New York Times insinuated what the passing of this bill meant for the average school age child, how the bill would ensure all children had access to healthy meals, and yet no one really went through the particulars of why it was so crucial.
Did you know that bills before congress and the senate are a matter of public record? No longer do you need to hop a Greyhound Bus to DC to request to see what's in those bills. The finished versions are available as PDF files right on the internet. I wanted to see what was the big fuss. So I downloaded it. All 220 pages of the Child Nutrition Act.
Let me preface all of this by saying, I did not read the entire document. Remember, I have 2 babies, a full time job, 2 hours of commuting time a day and a blog where I post 6 times a week. I am a pretty motivated lady, but I am not an Incredible. The table of contents lays out what is in the bill. The first title lays out the program: a secretary of the program will be hired, they have this much money, each state has a right to the funds provided they apply to the office of the secretary for reimbursement. It is pretty boring but if you would like to establish order for a program that feeds a couple million people a day, it is of utmost importance. I spent most of my time looking at Title 2, Reducing Childhood Obesity and Improving the Diets of Children since this was what most of the articles I have read seemed to talk about. The amount of funding and the program parameters established in Title I are important points that should be hashed out, but maybe not here on this blog. I am concerned about the food.
Within Title 2, there is Subtitle A for the National School Lunch Program. It states that within 18 months of the bill being signed into law, the Secretary of the program is required to establish regulations to update meal patterns and nutritional guidelines for the National School Lunch Program. Once the new regulations are in place, the secretary will establish a date by which all schools have to comply to the new regulations. AND the secretary's office must supply a quarterly report to the Senate to say how they are doing at getting schools to meet the new requirements. Once they get everyone on board, and the new nutritional regulations take effect, schools (and school food service companies) that can prove that they comply to the nutritional standards will be eligible to receive an additional 6 cents for every qualifying meal they serve. Schools have to be certified by the state to get the extra 6 cents.
Did you catch that?
There is nothing in the bill requiring schools to serve healthy food to kids. The intent is there, but the writers of the bill are assigning the Secretary, whoever he/she may be, with the task of deciding what proper nutritional standards are. One good thing though is that they are calling for a revision of the nutritional standards. And these nutritional standards will apply to the food program as well as all foods sold outside the school meals programs, on the school campus and at any time during the school day. But we must wait and see who is hired and what their own background or political motivations are before we can say that positive nutritional change is headed our way. The bill does say that the Secretary must establish standards that are in line with the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990. You know that will be the next bill I download.
Another good thing? Local School Districts have the right to establish their own policies to enforce the regulations under Section 204 (c). So a motivated school board can make sure that their district and their district's food service companies comply. This is a call to action for impassioned teachers across the country in my mind.
Also participating schools must report information about the school's nutrition environment to the Secretary of the program periodically. There seem to be a lot of reports, but that is what keeps people accountable. Reports are a drag, but they are a written record that you have either excelled or failed.
Another VERY INTERESTING program that the Child Nutrition Act establishes? In Title 2, Subtitle A, Section 210, the government establishes the ORGANIC FOOD PILOT PROGRAM. The Secretary is charged with creating a pilot organic food program and providing funds to support it. The bill is not specific about what the program will be. So who knows if the program will end up supplying organic processed pizza to schools? But the bill states that the purpose of the program is to introduce organic foods and raise the nutritional level of school lunches and reduce childhood obesity. For all those eager teachers who want their school to be a part of the pilot program, a school food authority must seek out a contract from the Secretary of the program by applying directly. And preference will be given to applicants who service school districts in which more than 50% of the households are at or below the Federal poverty line. So teachers-if you are teaching in an economically depressed area, get ready to lobby your local food service provider to get them to enroll in this program. The most motivated district will surely see funding. Funding can still go to well off school districts if no one from the tougher areas steps forth and asks for a grant!!
So in short, the bill does a lot of good. It lays a lot of groundwork to make the National School Lunch Program better. But at the same time it leaves huge loop holes in HOW that is to be accomplished. But that is the Senate for you. They do mean well and they do want the best for their constituents. But to do the work and take a stand against the food companies? Better let the program leaders be the bad guys. And if the Secretary ends up being an ex-Sodexo employee? God help us all. There are still a lot of ways that this could stall out with no improvement. Let's all stay tuned and stay involved.