CHICAGO | With childhood obesity at epidemic proportions, there is widespread agreement that school nutrition standards need to be improved. The challenge lawmakers and public health leaders face this year is figuring out exactly what those standards should be and how to fund them.
The national Child Nutrition Act is up for reauthorization and improvement for the first time in more than five years.
The Act sets the nutrition standards and level of federal funding for school meal programs, which serve 41.5 million children daily.
Up for debate this year is exactly how to improve nutrition standards for school meal programs and how much money that will take.
The Building a Healthier Chicago coalition recently weighed in with its recommendations for improving children's access to healthy food in schools. In its report, it recommended that all schools meet the national Institute of Medicine's 2009 recommendations for school nutrition standards, which include weekly requirements for dark green and orange vegetables, limiting starchy veggies and requiring that schools serve whole grains.
The coalition is a partnership among the Chicago Department of Public Health, American Medical Association and Regional Office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The IOM's recommendations would be a substantial improvement over current standards, which are based on 1995 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and "count French fries as a veggie," IOM committee member Rosemary Dederichs said.
The Building a Healthier Chicago coalition recognizes that schools can't meet the Institute of Medicine's recommended standards without adequate funding. "A change in requirements must be tied to an increase in funding," the report states.
"Schools and local school food authorities are already struggling to find funding to pay for school meal programs."
In fact, many schools struggle to find the funding for meals that meet 1995 nutrition standards.
According to the School Nutrition Association, the average cost to prepare and serve a school lunch that meets current federal nutrition standards is $2.92. But the federal reimbursement rate for free lunches that go to eligible students is only $2.68.
That leaves "financially strapped schools to make up the substantial funding gap," Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the Association, said.
The bill to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act proposes a 6 cent increase in federal funding for school meals that meet improved nutrition standards, which will ultimately be determined by the USDA and may or may not be based on the Institute of Medicine's recommendations.
The problem, Heavner said, is that 6 cents doesn't buy much more nutrition.
"Six cents can be the cost difference between white and wheat bread," she said.
Chicago Public Schools announced plans this month to implement new nutrition standards, some of which will meet Institute of Medicine recommendations.
For example, CPS will limit its serving of starchy vegetables, like potatoes and corn, to one cup per week according to its nutrition standards summary. CPS will also provide at least one serving of whole grains five days per week, as the Institute of Medicine recommends.
Michelle Hoersch, the parent of a 6-year-old girl in Oscar Mayer Elementary, a CPS magnet school, applauds CPS's efforts to improve school meal nutrition standards, but would love to see them go even further.
"They're trying, there's really an effort," she said. "It's just that everything is so processed. And the fruits and vegetables look very undesirable. The green beans aren't really green."
Ideally, she said, CPS could introduce fresh vegetables in school meals-the kind many Mayer Elementary students have recently tasted for the first time thanks to new community gardens.
Many school meal programs are nutrient versus food based, so kids can be served processed, starchy foods that are fortified with nutrients, but don't look like the fresh foods they encounter in gardens, said Tara Kennon of the Healthy Schools Campaign, which worked with CPS to develop its new nutrition standards.
Without exposure to fresh foods or nutrition education, children "don't get a sense of where nutrients come from," she said. They grow up thinking that foods like nachos and pizza, which are specially fortified with nutrients for school meals but not grocery stores, are healthy.
CPS's school meal program is currently nutrient based, but will be food-based next year, said Jean Saunders of Chartwells Thompson Hospitality, a food vendor for the Chicago Public Schools.
Ultimately, children's access to fresh, healthy foods and nutrition education comes down to funds, which should be more readily available with the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.
The bill would "invest roughly $4.5 billion in new funding in child nutrition programs over the next ten years-more new money than we have provided for child nutrition programs since their inception," Blanche Lincoln, Chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee said in a statement.
Still, it falls short of President Obama's proposed funding of $10 billion in school meal programs over the course 10 years. The U.S. House of Representatives is currently working on its version of a bill that would reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act and is looking to increase funding for it, according to the Healthy Schools Campaign.