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Congress Passes Child Nutrition Bill, School Lunches Get Healthier

In an effort to fight child hunger and obesity, Congress passed a bill that makes the most significant changes to school meal program in 30 years.

fries and macaroni and cheese being scooped onto plate

Photo: SpecialKRB (flickr)

The bill will keep traditional and popular foods but will improve their ingredients, such as using whole wheat in buns and sandwiches or leaner meat for hamburgers.

On Thursday, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (S. 3307) which makes nutritious meals more accessible to children through the public school system.

Ingredients And Subsidies

Supported by Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign, the $4.5 billion bill gives the government the power to determine which types of foods are served in cafeterias and vending machines. The Agriculture Department will write the new standards, which will favor foods that have less grease, sugar, and empty calories than some of foods commonly found in school cafeterias today.

A number of these changes will keep traditional and popular foods but improve their ingredients, such as using whole wheat in buns and sandwiches or leaner meat for hamburgers. Another example is vending machines will stock less candy and high-calorie drinks.

The bill also makes it easier for low-income children to have access to these nutritious food by increasing the amount of school lunches that are subsidized by the government. Furthermore, all fifty states will serve additional after school meals, as opposed to the current after-school snack program that most states currently have.

Addressing Health And Hunger

Supporters praise the bill as an important step of improving the country’s overall health and fighting child hunger.

In particular, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applauded the bill as a necessary and strong tool in the fight against childhood hunger and the obesity epidemic:

One in five children in America live in poverty. Many of those children go to sleep hungry at night. How could that be in this, the greatest country in the world?

She notes that $147 billion each year is spent in medical costs treating obesity-related diseases, and this bill addresses that spending by helping to eliminate the need for it. Additionally, the bill will help to reduce the 27 percent of Americans who are not able to enroll in the military because they are overweight.

Politics In Action

The bill enjoyed bipartisan support. Michelle Obama even toured with Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour (R) in support of the bill.

However, there has been an unusual amount of resistance to the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids” bill, which might be attributed to the partisan anger over the midterm elections and Congress’ lame duck status.

Liberal Democrats initially opposed the bill because they feared it would take money from the food stamp program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Republicans nearly killed the bill right before it was sent to President Obama by tagging on an amendment that would require all childcare workers to have a background check.

This move was criticized as a political attempt to push the legislation past the lame duck congress, when it would have stalled again in the new Congress as many other issues were addressed. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was saved from having to go back to Congress with the additional amendment when the the childcare workers’ background check was made into a separate bill, which also passed on Thursday.

The Burden On Schools

Some school systems have expressed concerns over the funding, saying that the new requirements will place too much of a financial burden on schools that are already struggling with budget cuts.

Of course, some politicians couldn’t pass the opportunity to turn the bill into a political stunt. Sarah Palin brought cookies to a Pennsylvania school last month, campaigning that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was another excess of control made by the “nanny state.”

However, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack argues that granting the government the power to redesign the school food system is an important step in addressing the country’s health crisis. “Our national security, economic competitiveness and health and wellness of our children will improve as a result of the action Congress took today,” comments Vilsack.

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Julie Rooney

Julie Rooney is a vegetarian, musician, and artist who primarily works in video and new media. Currently she is the director of Low Road Gallery, a non-profit contemporary art gallery located in Greencastle, Indiana.

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