Greasy French fries and calorie-dense pizza slices are common items on public school cafeteria trays across the U.S. But a new child nutrition bill, signed into law Monday by President Obama, will dedicate more federal funds to improving the health of school meals—and making sure the meals standards are based on solid science.
"The act will help address childhood obesity by reducing the fat and calorie content of school meals," O. Marion Burton, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said in a prepared statement.
In addition to supporting better nutritional content, the bill will expand the number of meals served to U.S. school children, millions of whom live in food-insecure households. Although the issues of childhood obesity and hunger might seem at odds, they "are two sides of the same coin," Representative Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), told The New York Times after Congress passed the bill earlier this month. "Highly processed, empty-calorie foods are less expensive than fresh nutritious foods." Increasing the amount of federal dollars made available to schools for food should help them afford to prepare more healthful meal options for students.
The bulk of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act's $4.5 billion will go to backing more—and better—meals, which will include more breakfasts, after-school meals and summertime meals. More than 31 million children in the U.S. are currently fed in part through the national school lunch program.
"We've seen the connection between what kids eat and how well they perform in school," President Obama said at the signing, The Washington Post reported.
The 84-page law will mandate parameters for the nutrition and calorie content of school meals—as well as other foods available on campus, including vending machine products. It will "establish standards that are consistent with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans," a new version of which has been published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services once every five years since 1990. The latest version is due out in early 2011. It mandates that the guidelines "consider authoritative scientific recommendations for nutrition standards."
The law will also provide health standards for food served to kids in other settings, such as daycare centers, as well as requiring institutions to have free drinking water available during meals.
Childhood obesity, which affects about 17 percent of U.S. children and adolescents, has implications for short- and long-term medical issues, but has also been shown to impact local economies. Heidi Blanck, of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, noted last week that some businesses evaluate rates of childhood obesity in areas where they are considering opening factories or additional offices because it could increase the company's health care costs down the road.
The law will also fund initiatives to bring more local produce into schools, such as a $40 million provision to boost farm-to-school programs. "This is going to change the landscape for our children for the next decade," Blanck said.
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