As American children head back to school, their senators and representatives return to Congress with just a few weeks left to renew the school lunch reforms that Michelle Obama championed five years ago. School lunch programs will keep serving meals even if the law expires, but Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is determined to see new legislation passed before the September 31st expiration of the current Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010.
"It will be helpful to have this work done now by an administration that understands and appreciates the significance of these nutrition programs relative to economic security, health care costs, and national security as well as educational achievement," Vilsack told Huffington Post last week.
The reauthorization is an opportunity to solidify the reforms of 2010 and to strengthen the program as a whole. But the bill shares a docket with the Iran nuclear deal and the now-annual threat of a government shutdown--hefty issues. Why should school nutrition be a policy priority?
1. We're desperate
In the past thirty years, we have seen child obesity rates increase more than threefold. Researchers estimated that the healthcare costs associated with obesity were over 147 billion in 2008. Mission Readiness, a nonpartisan alliance of retired military leaders, reports that 25% of young American adults fail to qualify for military service because of their weight. There are academic costs, too: children with metabolic syndrome--primarily associated with obesity--are at a cognitive disadvantage in comparison with their healthier peers.
2. It's an opportunity for bipartisanship
Although Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kan) has argued that the school regulations are too strict and the programs too costly, he joined Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) in calling for timely reauthorization. The program's broad legislative support likely stems from its public success: 90% of respondents to a W. K. Kellogg Foundation poll supported the national school lunch nutrition standards.
Most surprisingly, the legislation has gained support from food companies: some of the same companies that once lobbied against nutrition standards, Politico reports, have seen sales rise for their newly developed whole-grain-rich, low-sodium products. When the School Nutrition Association asked that children no longer be required to take half a cup of fruits or vegetables with each lunch, the produce industry sided with the White House in defending the mandate.
3. It's working
We are starting to see evidence that the school lunch standards are working: The USDA reports that 95% of school districts are meeting the goals; a Harvard School of Public Health study found that students consumed more fruits and vegetables after the law's implementation; and student complaints seem to be the exception, rather than the rule--a 2015 study found that nearly 9 in 10 students like at least some of the meal options.
No law is perfect. The implementation of the new standards has been accompanied by real concerns about food waste, and it will never be easy to decide just how much our nation is willing to spend on children's lunches. But renewing the child nutrition programs means supporting beautifully bipartisan goals: preventing chronic diseases, strengthening our military, and promoting the educational success of our children. Surely these causes are worth prioritizing.