New federal law focuses on school nutrition

Thursday, December 16, 2010
Kindergarten students Macy Walker, left, and Demi Drum enjoy their lunch Wednesday at Blanchard Elementary. On Monday President Barack Obama signed the federal child nutrition act that will expand the nation's school lunch program and set new standards for what is in those lunches. (Kristin Eberts)

The war on both childhood hunger and obesity is being waged in places like the Scott City School District cafeteria.

Bigger portions of fresh fruits and vegetables, smaller desert sizes, and a greater emphasis on whole wheat have a much more prominent place in the school lunch menu, according to Brenda Arnzen, director of nutritional services for OPAA! Food Service Management, the Chesterfield, Mo.-based food service provider for Scott City.

"We offer three [entree] choices, and one of those choices every day is that a child can take a salad," said Arnzen, whose food service staff serves about 850 lunches at Scott City schools.

Scott City schools and others in Southeast Missouri seem to be getting a jump on changes expected soon from a school nutrition bill signed into law this week by President Barack Obama. The legislation is so fresh that school administrators in Cape Girardeau and Jackson could not discuss its effect.

But the $4.5 billion Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, cheered by supporters as a victory for children and lambasted by critics as a government boondoggle, aims at childhood obesity and hunger.

The act authorizes funding for federal school meal and child nutrition programs and increases access to healthy food for low-income children. It reauthorizes child nutrition programs for five years and includes $4.5 billion in new funding over 10 years. Among its provisions, the act:

* Gives the USDA the authority to set nutritional standards for all foods regularly sold in schools during the school day, including vending machines, the "a la carte" lunch lines and school stores.

* Provides additional funding to schools that meet updated nutritional standards for federally subsidized lunches, boosting the school lunch reimbursement rate by 6 cents. Currently, on average schools are reimbursed $2.72 per meal.

"This is a historic investment, the first real reimbursement rate increase in over 30 years," according to a White House fact sheet.

* Adds 115,000 children to free and reduced-price meal programs.

* Helps communities establish local farm-to-school networks, create school gardens, and ensures that more local foods are used in the school setting.

* Expands access to drinking water in schools, particularly during meal times.

* Sets basic standards for school wellness policies, including goals for nutrition promotion and education and physical activity.

More than 31 million children eat school lunch every day, with a growing number of students eligible for free and reduced-priced meals. About 60 percent of students in the Cape Girardeau School District were eligible for the subsidized program as of last month, with a high of 87 percent at Franklin Elementary School.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said 17 million U.S. children live in homes that are "food insecure." On the other end of the spectrum are the 1 in 3 children considered obese or at risk of becoming obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lisa Elfrink, nutrition services coordinator for the Cape Girardeau School District, has said the schools are combating obesity and inactivity through a variety of programs and a change in philosophy. Meals include more whole wheat, fruits and vegetables, and school vending machines, now found only at the high school and junior high, offer baked chips, lower-calorie energy drinks and diet soda, Elfrink said last month. She could not be reached for comment Wednesday on the new nutrition act.

Missouri school administrators say they will have to wait and see what the ultimate financial effect of the law is, particularly whether there are any unfunded mandates attached.

Karen Wooton, school food services director for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the USDA has provided few details on the act.

Arnzen said her food service company has sent out updates on changing nutrition guidelines and that she expects more training ahead. She doesn't believe the nutrition act will drastically alter what already is taking place at the Scott City school lunch table.

"It's about getting more healthy foods into the meals," she said.


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