Wootan: Hunger-Free Kids Act will have big impact
Margo Wootan had seen the story I wrote last week about the limited benefits of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which President Obama signed yesterday. The director for nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest said the article read like a foodie wrote it. She was smiling as she said that. There was no malice in her voice, but the subtext seemed clear: My foodie instincts -- and others like mine -- can't grasp the deeper complexities of this new law.
"It’s just too simplistic to judge this bill by the money because there are all of these no-cost reforms," she told me after the presidential signing ceremony at Harriet Tubman Elementary School, "that will help to insure that there is more healthy food in school lunches and breakfasts.”
Wootan has been on the front lines of school lunch reform for years, and she knows this bill like a sixth grader knows how to piece together "lunch" from vending machine junk food. She says there are a number of important provisions in the law that tend to get overlooked by the naysayers who focus too much attention on the tiny six-cent increase in school lunch meals.
The first provision, Wootan says, is the requirement that schools raise the price of meals for students who can afford it. Apparently school districts have been loathe to require the more financially stable families to cover the entire cost of their children's lunches, which then forces administrators to subsidize the paid meals with government reimbursement money.
"They’re required to raise the price over time," Wootan says, "and if they just do the minimum, it’ll bring $2.6 billion into the school meals program over 10 years."
Another provision will prevent government reimbursement money from subsidizing the a la carte and vending machine items, those pre-packaged treats and junk-food dishes that are so popular with kids raised on a steady diet of sugar and fat.
"A lot of people think that the a la carte food subsidizes school lunch, but really it’s the other way around," Wootan says. "In most schools, the lunch ends up subsidizing the Ho Hos, the Little Debbie snack cakes, the pizzas that are sold a la carte because they don’t factor in the whole costs of selling those foods.”
What kind of costs? Things like labor, electricity, and other overhead bills are routinely charged to the meals program, Wootan says. Similarly, administrators have historically viewed lunch reimbursement money as a giant pool of cash with which to subsidize other school operations. The new law calls for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a study on what school districts are charging the meal program in these so-called "in-direct" costs and then draft regulations to address the costs.
"The math department is not charged for the janitorial services. Why should the school food services be?" says Wootan. "If less money is charged to the food service program for lights and overhead and janitorial services, the more money can go into healthy foods."
The other important part of the law, Wootan notes, is the forthcoming nutritional standards for vending machine and a la carte foods. The standards, drafted by the non-partisan Institute of Medicine, still have to wind their way through the comments and approval process, but if accepted as is, they will radically change the school meals program.
"It will get soda and candy bars out of the schools, but it’s also important for the meals because it’s hard for the school lunch program to serve a very nutritious meal if kids can instead go to the a la carte line and get french fries and pizza," Wootan says. "And so by getting rid of the junk food and a la carte [foods], more kids will participate in the meals, and the more kids who participate the better. Because if the child buys three slices of pizza and a Gatorade in the a la carte line...the school doesn’t get any reimbursement [money]. But if they buy a balanced meal, then the school gets a 26 cents reimbursement, plus about 20 cents in commodities."
In other words, the benefit of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act goes way beyond those six extra cents per meal.
| December 14, 2010; 1:11 PM ET
Categories: Food Politics | Tags: Margo Wootan, Tim Carman, nutrition, school lunch
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