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Child nutrition bill will mean more produce for lunch, officials say

December 10, 2010 |  2:17 pm

President Obama is scheduled on Monday to sign into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act –- a bill that adds six cents to school lunch reimbursements, among other provisions meant to reduce hunger and obesity while improving school food.

Tom Vilsack, secretary of the Department of Agriculture, said Friday during a conference call for reporters that Monday would be “a great day for kids.”

The bill that Congress passed this month, he noted, will provide $4.5 billion over 10 years and give the USDA the authority to set nutrition standards for food sold a la carte, in vending machines and in school stores -- as well as in cafeteria lines -- during the school day. It will also increase by 115,000 the number of children eligible to eat free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch at school because of streamlined certification procedures.

Vilsack, countering some reports, said the bill will not keep parents from bringing cupcakes to school for parties. And food sold outside school hours –- at a Friday night basketball game, for example –- won’t be affected.

About 32 million children eat school lunch every day. For some, that food might be their only meals, many officials have said. Vilsack said that 17 million children live in homes that are “food insecure” and that 1 in 3 children are obese or at risk of becoming obese.

Although six cents seems like a pittance, it will make a difference, Sam Kass, senior policy advisor for healthy food initiatives at the White House, told reporters Friday. Children will see more whole grains and more fruits and more vegetables, and more children will have the chance to learn “where food comes from and how it grows” through farm-to-school and other programs, he said.

“Hungry kids don’t learn very well,” Vilsack said. “We are in a very difficult competition to have the smartest, most creative kids on Earth” and “we cannot afford to have a third of our kids being obese.”

Tim Cipriano, executive director of food services for New Haven, Conn., public schools, said that more than 80% of the students in his district qualify for free and reduced meals. The bill will enable him to buy more local produce -– and that can have a big effect, he said, citing a child who tried a sungold tomato from a school garden.

“That little tomato can change a whole generation of kids,” he said.

-- Mary MacVean

Photo: Students check out some food in Palo Alto. Credit: Paul Sakuma / Associated Press