Primer on New Child Nutrition Act

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The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, signed by President Barack Obama in mid-December, will boost the availability and health content of free meals for poor children both at school and at after-school programs. The bill, heavily promoted by first lady Michele Obama as part of her anti-obesity campaign, passed the Senate in August and the House in early December.

Under the law, school districts that adopt new USDA-established meal nutrition standards will get a 6-cent-per-meal increase in their reimbursement rate from the USDA’s National School Lunch Program, which provides free or reduced-price meals to students from low-income families. The USDA has 18 months to determine the new standards, but the agency says it has been working on them and has vowed to release a proposal by the end of this year, according to Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association.

Other parts of the new law will have an impact on parents, foster care providers, educators and after-school programs. Here’s what is known about the law:

  • Nearly half the funding, about $2.2 billion, is allotted from cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps). Some people have criticized this funding reallocation because it means taking meals away from low-income kids while they are home, and using it to feed them while at school.
  • Another provision requires the USDA to develop healthier nutrition standards for other forms of food distribution at schools besides the official school lunch program, such as vending machines and snacks sold at school stores.
  • The law seeks to streamline the certification process for students to receive free or reduced price meals so that no paperwork is required from the child’s family. Foster children will automatically be eligible for free meals, and students whose families receive SNAP benefits also will automatically be eligible, a provision the Congressional Budget Office estimates will lead to 115,000 additional students enrolling annually.
  • It expands and reforms the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), which subsidizes after-school programs providing snacks and meals to youth participants. The program is in 13 states, but the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act allows all 50 states to participate. Any after-school program located in an area served by a school in which at least half the student population is eligible for free or reduced meals can sign up to receive CACFP funding to cover meals.
  • There is $40 million in mandatory funding for farm-to-school programs, which set up local school gardens and use food from local farms as ingredient sources for school meals.

President Obama has assured House Democrats these SNAP cuts, which would not go into effect for several years, will be replaced with other to-be-determined funding sources.

This after-school meal component of the law is estimated to cost $750 million over 10 years, according to Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research and Action Center.