New Law Focuses on Better School Lunches

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Third-graders at Jefferson eat meatball sandwiches and orange slices. Photo Credit: Moina Noor
Students at Jefferson Elementary School stand in line for lunch. Photo Credit: Moina Noor

Updated 12/15/10:  President Obama signed a bill Monday that will provide school districts with more money for lunches and improve the nutritional quality of the food sold. "This is an important and symbolic move,"[breakhere] says Amy Kalafa, a Weston resident and the producer/director of "Two Angry Moms," an award-winning documentary about a movement to improve food in schools. Kalafa says she had been following the bill as it moved through Congress.

The $4.5 billion Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act provides a school district with an additional 6-cent per meal reimbursement to the $2.72 it already receives for children who get free lunches. The legislation also makes it easier to identify children who qualify for free lunches by using Medicaid data and eliminating paperwork requirements.

The law will especially affect schools such as Jefferson Elementary School in Norwalk, where 64 percent of the students receive free and reduced-priced lunches. "We see a lot of hungry kids. This will help," says Kathy Gallagher, Jefferson's assistant principal. "It's also important to have good quality food."

As part of the new measure, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will establish national nutrition guidelines for food sold in schools, including lunchrooms, vending machines, fundraisers and school stores. The law also provides for more after-school meals, certification requirements for cafeteria personnel and public reports on a district's school nutrition environment.  Critics of the law say that it puts too many federal mandates on local districts. 

Tom Murphy, spokesman for the state Department of Education, says the additional federal reimbursement will help districts. But the national nutritional guidelines will have less of an impact in Connecticut than in other parts of the country. "We already have state nutritional standards signed onto by 70 percent of our districts," says Murphy.

Susan Fiore, nutrition education coordinator at the Education Department, says the state standards, established five years ago,  limit the amount of fat, saturated fat, added sugar and sodium. Norwalk and Fairfield have signed onto these voluntary state guidelines. Westport, Wilton, Darien, New Canaan, Stamford, Greenwich, Weston and Easton have not.

Wilton Public Schools have opted out of signing onto Connecticut's Heathy Food Certification because it does not allow school fundraisers like bake sales where sweets like cupcakes and brownies are sold, says Ken Post, Wilton Public School Chief Financial Officer.  "Our school lunch meets and exceeds the state's standards,"  he adds.

The new law is part of a broader initiative by first lady Michelle Obama to fight childhood obesity. "It's great that we have Michelle Obama behind the healthy food movement," says Kalafa. "But for me, this is a still a local movement. It's not necessarily about a 6-cent reimbursement or banning certain products. And it's not about Norwalk versus Weston. It's about how a community values food."

What do you think about this new law?  Are you satisfied with your kid's school lunch?

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