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Child Nutrition Bill Passes the Senate, Food Stamp Funding Takes Cut

In a surprise move yesterday before heading out for five weeks of recess, the Senate passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act with unanimous consent, which means all 100 senators agreed to pass the bill without an individual vote. The bill allots an additional $4.5 billion dollars over ten years to fund federal child nutrition programs including school lunch.

First Lady Michelle Obama supported the bill as part of her Let’s Move campaign to fight childhood obesity, writing in an op-ed in The Washington Post last week,”This groundbreaking legislation will bring fundamental change to schools and improve the food options available to our children.”

Though providing less than the requested $10 billion suggested by Let’s Move, this marks the first major step towards the most significant increase in funding on the child nutrition programs in 30 years. In a statement yesterday, the First Lady said, “While childhood obesity cannot be solved overnight, with everyone working together, there’s no question that it can be solved. And today’s vote moves us one step closer to reaching that goal.” Read more

Farmer Friendly Zone: Better School Food = More Local Farms

Last week, U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, unveiled the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which provides $4.5 billion in new child nutrition program funding over ten years. It says on Lincoln’s website: “This legislation will also mark the first time since the inception of the National School Lunch Program that Congress has dedicated this level of resources to increasing the program’s reimbursement rate.”

Currently, the National School Lunch Program feeds nearly 31 million students every day for $9.3 billion per year. At the end of February, President Barack Obama proposed a $1 billion a year increase ($10 billion over ten years) in funding for U.S. child nutrition programs including school lunches. Sounds like a lot. But $1 billion, it turns out, really only boils down to an extra twenty cents per school meal. Right now, the reimbursement rate per meal is $2.68, and less than a dollar of that goes towards actual food. The rest is spent on infrastructure. Many school food advocates believe that serving wholesome, nutritious meals for under $3 is just not possible and there has been a rallying cry for more – up to a $1 more per child’s meal.

Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, once told me if the USDA did nothing else than change the food served in schools, then he would be happy because “to change the school lunch program, USDA Secretary Vilsack will have to change the infrastructure that delivers the food to our schools and that will change the food system because it will provide many new opportunities for farmers to get food they produce to consumers, and I think that will encourage more of our young want-to-bes to begin farming.”

That statement seems fairly profound – that by changing our school food we could actually change this nation’s agricultural system by empowering local farms with local school dollars. So how exactly would an increase, if it actually happened, in the National School Lunch Program change or impact local farm production? Would biodiversity increase? Would commodity crops disappear to make room for more fruit and vegetables? How would the relationship between the schools and the farmers change?

Here are a few answers to those questions from leaders in the school food movement: Read more