As much of the news focus has been on health care reform over the past few weeks, another important bill that will help reduce health care costs is quietly getting closer to becoming law. It is the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the draft child nutrition reauthorization bill which was approved by the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry last week as a step to ending childhood hunger by 2015 and childhood obesity within one generation. The legislation increases the number of children eligible for free or reduced cost meals in several ways, including making every child on Medicaid and every foster child eligible for meals, as well as creating provisions to make entire schools or school districts eligible for free or reduced cost meals. “According to the latest United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, nearly 1 in 4 children across the country are at risk of hunger (1).” As food prices have increased, and school district budgets have decreased, it has become more difficult for schools to provide healthy meals for children, so the increase in funding is more important than ever before.
The bill is historic because while fighting childhood hunger, it will also target the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic. The bill contains a provision for an additional six cent reimbursement on top of the national lunch average payment, for each lunch that meets certain nutrition standards (2). The standards will be published by the Secretary of Agriculture, based on recommendations made by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council for the National Academy of Sciences after the enactment of the bill (2). The bill has the ability to increase access to nutritious food for children not only for breakfast and lunch on school days, but also over the summer, weekends and extended school holidays (1).
The bill also includes guidelines that require any schools participating in a school lunch program to implement school wellness policies that include nutrition education, physical activity, and other activities that promote student wellness (2). Schools will also have to meet nutritional guidelines for all food sold at the school, including food outside the meal programs and sold any time during the school day (2). Childhood obesity and excess weight threaten the health of one third of American children, and children today are the first generation to face a shorter expected lifespan than their parents. Each year, $150 billion is spent treating obesity-related conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, so if obesity rates are reduced, a tremendous amount of money could be spent on healthcare each year. First Lady Michelle Obama has been drawing attention the problems and solutions, by planting a garden at the Whitehouse and starting a campaign, called Let’s Move, to support healthier food in schools, help kids get more physically active, and make healthy, affordable food available everywhere (3).
President Obama took on the healthcare companies and insurance industries with the current Healthcare Reform bill. The time is right for also taking on the school lunch program to fight childhood obesity. It makes more sense to teach children healthy life habits from a young age, instead of treating diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease down the road. The bill will be up for vote in the full Senate later this year.