The House Committee on Education and Labor this past week approved the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act (H.R. 5504), clearing the bill for a vote on the House floor. The legislation seeks to improve access to school meal programs in and outside of school and to improve the quality of these meals through both food safety requirements and, for the first time ever, nutrition standards for food served outside of the lunchroom, such as in vending machines.
In his opening remarks, Chairman George Miller (D-CA) noted that First Lady Michelle Obama has made it her top priority to end childhood obesity and improve children’s health. In order to realize these goals in the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign, however, Congress must support legislation to reauthorize child nutrition programs. Miller noted that over 25% of all Americans aged 17 to 24 are too heavy to join the military and stressed that the issue of childhood obesity combined with the persistence of childhood hunger reveals the importance of this legislation.
The bill seeks to improve child nutrition in a few key ways. First, it would improve access to school meal programs in and out of the school. It would eliminate applications to certify children eligible for the school lunch program and instead would use Medicaid and SCHIP (the state children’s health insurance program) data to enroll eligible students. Similarly, it would use census data instead of paper applications to identify schoolwide income eligibility in high-poverty communities. The bill would also improve access to out of school meal programs for children in school- and community-based summer and after-school programs, in home-based child care, and in low-income rural areas.
In addition to improving access, this bill would improve the quality of school meal programs in an effort to curb the increasing problem of childhood obesity. First, the bill would increase the reimbursement rate to 6 cents per meal-the first increase in 30 years-to encourage healthier meal requirements as proposed by the Institute of Medicine. Also, it would increase funding for nutrition education, promote public and private partnerships to create community-wide strategies, and help communities establish local farm-to-school networks and school gardens, all to promote healthier eating practices for children. The bill also seeks to improve the quality of school meals by extending food safety requirements to anywhere food is stored, prepared or served in the school, and by expediting notification of recalled foods. However, of concern to NASSP and our members, the bill would also establish federal nutrition standards for the first time for food served outside the cafeteria, such as in vending machines and at school-sponsored activities.
This legislation, now awaiting a vote on the House floor, underscores the importance of access and quality of school meals every day of the year, and not just on high-stakes testing days. NASSP sees this bill as an important step toward ensuring that children come prepared each day to achieve at their highest potential.