(Not) On the Block: Free and Reduced Cost School Meals

Yesterday, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 into law with his wife, a strong anti-childhood obesity advocate, by his side. The law has two main goals: to increase the number of students who are able to get free or reduced price breakfasts and lunches at their school and to ensure the food they have access to is healthy and nutritious.

Why is this important? In 2009, the latest year for which data is available, 14.7% of U.S. households were food insecure, meaning there was at least once in the past year that they did not have enough food to feed the entire family. 2009 represents a 2.5% increase over 2008, which was in turn a 1.2% increase over 2007. (Data for 1995-2008 is available in our database.) Food insecurity hits children harder: 23.2% of children lived in a food-insecure household, above the national average for all households. The dramatic rise in families unable to always afford the basic necessity of food, likely resulting from the recession, contributes to kids going without meals at home.

Children who experience hunger are more likely to have chronic illness, depression, and behavioral issues, all of which hinder success in school. Providing students with a consistent source of food each day is important for both physical wellness and scholastic success. There are a bevy of federal programs intended to provide hungry students with nutritious food, including the school breakfast program, the school lunch program, and the summer food program. The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act not only reauthorizes these programs (they expired in 2009 and were running on temporary extensions, much like the entire government is now), it also provides an additional $4.5 billion over the next ten years.

At the same time, childhood obesity is on the rise in the United States and has been for some time. According the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) child obesity rates have tripled or even quadrupled in the last 40 years, depending on age group. HHS data shows a number of shifts in children's diets, including an increased intake of food outside the home, a decrease in breakfast consumption, and a decrease in dairy consumption. These shifts are targeted by the new law. School breakfast, lunch, and milk programs will continue to provide sustenance which children might not get at home. Further, in order to offset any additional costs to schools that might result from providing students with healthy meal options, food reimbursement rates will rise for meals that meet the nutrition standards to be laid out by the USDA.

Some advocacy groups, like the New England Alliance for Children's Health (see their summary of the bill), argue that current funding levels are not enough. The reimbursement is a mere 6 cents, and that's only if the meal meets USDA nutritional requirements. This rate has not risen since 1973, and President Obama originally proposed an 18 cent increase in his FY2011 budget.

Where did the $4.5 billion in additional money come from? Funding for this bill was diverted from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps. Another provision in the bill requires schools to increase the price of paid school meals to offset the increased costs resulting from the rise in students qualifying for free or reduced cost meals. In this tough budgetary climate, taking money from one good program to fund another (robbing Peter to pay Paul) becomes a tool of compromise and political expediency. Interestingly, Republicans demanded that the costs of these programs bill be paid for, but allowed the costs associated with extending the Bush era tax cuts to be added to the deficit.

Yet in a political landscape marred by partisan firefights, it is refreshing to see legislation actively help the most vulnerable in our society, although the bill did not receive broad bipartisan support in the House – 153 Republicans noted “no.” While most media coverage of the current lame duck session of Congress has focused on tax breaks for the wealthy, our elected officials deserve credit for the work they do that doesn't make the news.