The "Bill Could Limit Bake Sales" article that ran on the front page of The Post-Journal on Saturday, Dec. 4 described the potential of the national Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to limit bake sales in schools.
Public health is committed to promoting health and preventing disease. Given our mission, I was disappointed that the focus of this Associated Press article overshadowed the major accomplishment the U.S. Congress made in passing a law to improve the health of our nation's children. Once signed by the president, this law will influence the first increase in the reimbursement rate for school meals in more than 30 years.
Today's society is full of pressures that influence us to eat unhealthy foods and limit our physical activity. Schools are uniquely positioned to positively influence children to develop healthy habits. These healthy choices can positively affect the health and well-being of these children and their families throughout the life span. Eating healthy, being physically active, and not using tobacco are directly related to preventing chronic diseases such as heart attack, stroke, cancer, and diabetes.
The main purpose of this bill, which passed in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday, Dec. 2, is to update the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards to improve the quality of school meals and to expand the school lunch program. The bill was part of First Lady Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign to fight childhood obesity.
The USDA's current standards for school lunches are over 30 years old. These guidelines were designed to prevent children from being underweight and malnourished. In America today, the problem of overindulgence is much more prevalent than the issue of starvation, especially among our school students. Inactive lifestyles in combination with foods high in fat and sugar have led to a threatening number of our children being overweight or obese.
With the objective of making school meals healthier, the bill sets forth a plan to incentivize schools to offer more nutritious lunches. Schools will be offered an additional six cents per meal on top of their current reimbursement to meet the new USDA nutritional guidelines that will require more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
It is surprising that the Associated Press chose to focus on the issue of bake sales when these events rarely occur during the school day. Many local schools already prohibit vending machine use and bake sales during the school day due to school policies and contracts with food service providers. The bill calls for the replacement of junk food sold "a la carte" or in vending machines with healthier options. It also encourages schools to buy local food and plant school gardens.
Schools that offer free and reduced lunches through the School Lunch Program will be eligible for technical assistance and competitive grant funding up to $100,000 for developing school gardens or implementing farm to school programs. By connecting with local farmers, schools will help to keep more food dollars in the local community while providing fresh, healthy foods to students. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act also outlines a plan to expand the school lunch program that will make it easier for qualified children to receive lunches free or for a reduced rate. By partnering with other programs like Medicaid, food stamps, and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program, enrollment in the school lunch program will be streamlined and result in reduced administrative time and costs.
By ensuring that schools are making nutrition a priority, parents and educators can feel confident that lunch money will be used to buy a balanced school meal. Children will be better enabled to learn at school and develop healthy habits that can carry outside of school.
The national Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act will provide for more and better meals for kids, less junk food at school, more school gardens and greater utilization of local produce. This is actually an awesome tool to help us in the fight against childhood obesity!
Christine Schuyler, BSN, RN, MHA, is public health director of the Chautauqua County Department of Health.