The new rules would require more servings of fruit, veggies, and whole-grains each week, and limit the amount of starchy vegetables, sodium, saturated and trans fat allowed. The standards also establish calorie maximums and minimums for the first time, stricter food safety checks, and would permit only low-fat or fat-free milk at schools.
The reforms were authorized under the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010 that President Obama signed into law last December, and would affect the 32 million lunches and 11 million breakfasts the government subsidizes for school children daily. Children consume about 30 to 50 percent of their daily caloric intake at school, and nearly a third of children, ages 2 to 19, in the United States are obese or significantly overweight.
While overall U.S. obesity rates have been leveling off, the problem has been growing for poor and children of color. According to the NAACP, 38 percent of Mexican-American and 34.9 percent of African-American children are obese or overweight, compared to 30.7 percent of white children.
A 2010 study published in the journal Health Affairs also found that 44.8 percent of children living below the poverty line and 43.2 percent of children who are publicly insured are obese or overweight. Furthermore, kids from a single-mom household are 25 percent more likely to be overweight or obese, and 21 percent more likely if they live in a neighborhood without a park or recreation center.
“For vulnerable children, the picture can start to look bleak. It means adding the physical health burden of obesity to the already existing burdens of poverty and discrimination,” Christina Bethell, lead author of the study, told the LA Times.
“Our study also found that obese children were twice as likely to have had to repeat a grade in school compared with children who are neither overweight or obese. Over time these types of impacts can really add up to impact the lifetime health and success of a child,” she said.
Nancy Rice of the non-profit School Nutrition Association told USA Today that the challenge will be for school food-service personnel to “stretch limited food-service dollars” to implement the changes. For example, schools will receive just an additional 6 cents per meal for children on the free lunch program for meeting the standards.
The USDA plans to begin implementation of the new standards as soon as July, but most of the rules will take effect by the start of the 2012 school year to provide time for training and technical assistance and support.
Meanwhile, many schools and communities are taking matters into their own hands. A Chicago school controversially banned homemade lunches this week, just one of many independent efforts to improve the health of this country.
But school lunches are just part of the picture. Children might soon be getting better meal options at school, but if they are part of the millions of families living in food deserts, what kind of food will be available to them at home? As Kai Wright wrote earlier this year for Colorlines, it will take individual, family, and community efforts as well as structural reforms to make food justice possible in America.