Since President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act in 1946, the United States has consistently tried to improve child nutrition. Until now.
Within days of taking office in April 2017, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced an interim rule change, delaying the implementation of several provisions of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, including lower sodium thresholds and the requirement that districts only serve whole grain–rich products rather than their more processed, refined carbohydrate cousins. Starting with the 2017-2018 school year, states and school districts have leeway when it comes to what options are available in the cafeteria.
Still, at least for now, a glass of water and a crust of bread does not cut it in the school lunch line. Or at least not in a cafeteria that participates in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s School Lunch Program.
In 2016, more than 31 million children nationwide participated in the School Lunch Program, helping account for more than $1 billion in food purchases per year.
For schools to receive federal funding, balanced meals seal the deal. Students must be offered low-fat or fat-free milk, grains, and some form of protein, such as chicken, pork, or tofu. Also, districts are required to have at least a half cup of fruit and three-fourths of a cup of vegetables available for pint-sized diners at lunch.
Under the terms of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, lunchtime vegetable choices must include at least one offering per week of legumes; dark green produce, such as broccoli or collard greens; white potatoes or other another starchy vegetable; a red or an orange vegetable, such as carrots or sweet potatoes; and “other,” a catch-all category that includes onions, green beans, and cucumbers.
Prior to the law change, the only specifications required schools to offer at least a half cup of vegetables at each meal.
Among the children participating in the program, 73 percent receive free or reduced-price meals either by meeting income guidelines or through the Community Eligibility Program, which allows individual school sites and school districts in low-income areas to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students.
After experimenting with the CEP for three years across 55 sites, Oklahoma’s largest district, Oklahoma City Public Schools, implemented the program this fall at all 88 schools. Of the district’s 46,000 students, 84 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunch in the previous school year.
“Providing free meals to every student at OKCPS will end putting kids in categories to determine who gets a meal at no cost and who doesn’t,” OKCPS Director of School Nutrition Services Kevin Ponce said. “Having free meals for every student will change the perception of the cafeteria and make it a welcoming place for all students—regardless of their socioeconomic situation.”
The free and reduced-price rate also includes children who received free school meals through waivers granted in response to natural disasters, such as tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods.
Although the 2017 participation rates are not available, they will include additional students from southern Texas thanks to Hurricane Harvey.
Along with extending application deadlines for school districts impacted by the storm, the U.S. Department of Agriculture granted a blanket eligibility waiver through Sept. 30 for all 1.3 million students enrolled in school districts across 18 counties declared a federal disaster area due to the hurricane.
Among the children impacted by the decision are the 218,000 students enrolled in the Houston Independent School District, the country’s seventh-largest public school system.
“It will take months, possibly years, for the city to recover. We expect families to be displaced, students to attend new schools, and many of them possibly using alternative ways to travel to and from school,” HISD Nutrition Services Officer Betti Wiggins said. “We want to reduce any stress connected to food while families work toward getting their personal affairs in order.”