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Food Fight Over Healthy School Lunches

Food Fight Over Healthy School Lunches

At the end of September the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, along with a number of other food-assistance programs, is up for renewal. Championed by Michelle Obama and enacted in 2010, the act requires more stringent nutritional standards for school meals and has stirred up considerable controversy. Lobbyists and some Republican representatives are trying to relax the regulations.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), the lobby representing 55,000 food service workers (and sponsored by the likes of Domino’s, General Mills, PepsiCo, and Tyson Foods), and other opponents of the act claim that the rules are overly stringent and result in food unpopular with kids, creating unnecessary waste. Opponents note a drop in participation in school meal programs since the rules were enacted.

However, a recently published study in Childhood Obesity found that: “Half of those surveyed said that the students "complained about the meals at first," but 70 percent said that the students now like the new lunches.” And furthermore “respondents from schools with a high percentage of poor students—those with at least two-thirds eligible for free or reduced-price meals—were especially positive about the new standards." They found that "more students were buying lunch and that students were eating more of the meal than in the previous year."

And while school lunch participation has dropped off to a tune of 1.4 million students (equivalent to about a 3 percent drop) most of this drop-off is from students who pay full price for lunch.

Which means that while there was a bit of a jolt in transitioning to healthier meals, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is working effectively for students that need healthy nutritious meals the most.

The American Heart Association has recently launched a campaign to protect, and strengthen, the act. The association notes a recent study showing “students are eating 16% more vegetables and 23% more fruit, all while getting less salt, fats, and sugar. A vast majority of parents – 72% -- support strong nutrition standards in schools.”

They stress: “With many children getting 50 percent or more of their daily calories in school, making sure these foods are nutritious is critical, and studies show that kids who eat healthy do better in the classroom.”

The rules have a long way to go. Many empty-calorie snacks and foods, like cheetos and fast-food pizza, still qualify under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Now is not a time to be discussing cutting back the program, but rather how to ensure the act can continue to provide children with nutritious meals.