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Child Nutrition Bill: What it Actually Accomplishes

Note: This story was updated on December 13

A massive child nutrition bill that will boost the availability and health content of free meals to poor children both at school and at after-school programs passed the Senate this August and in the House in early December. The bill, lobbied heavily by First Lady Michelle Obama, was signed into law by the president today.

The mainstream media has used fairly general terms to describe the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 over the past week, but without an explanation of exactly how the $4.5 billion bill would actually work.

Such vague coverage is partially because rather than specify updated school meal nutrition benchmarks, the bill’s language gives leeway to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to do so.

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 in low-income families. The USDA has 18 months to determine the new standards, but the agency claims it has already been working on them and has vowed to release a proposal by the end of this year, according to Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association.

There are plenty of other tangible parts of the bill that impact parents, foster care providers, educators and after-school programs. Here’s what is known about the bill: 

* Nearly half the funding, about $2.2 billion, is allotted from cuts to 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.

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

* There is also a provision in the bill that requires the USDA to develop healthier nutrition standards to other forms of food distribution at schools besides the official school lunch program, such as vending machines and snacks sold at school stores.

* Streamlining the certification process for students to receive free or reduced price meals so that there is no paperwork required from the child’s family. Foster children will automatically be eligible for free meals, and students whose families receive SNAP benefits will also be automatically eligible for free meals, a provision that the Congressional Budget Office estimates will lead to 115,000 additional students enrolling annually.

* Expansion and reform of the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), which subsidizes after-school programs providing snacks and meals to youth participants. Currently, the program is in 13 states, but the Healthy and 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.

This after-school meal component of the bill 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.

* There is $40 million in mandatory funding towards farm-to-school programs, which set up local school gardens and food from local farms as ingredient sources for school meals.

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