The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010 is the most recent child nutrition reauthorization bill. It authorizes $4.5 billion in new funding for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s core child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. Public focus and attention with regard to the HHFKA has chiefly been focused on the dramatic changes implemented in nutritional requirements for all food served in schools, including new restrictions on the amount of calories, sugar, fat and sodium in school meals. Nutrition advocates have lauded these efforts to address rising rates of childhood obesity, but school meal professionals are concerned with the financial cost of implementing these new standards. Their concerns stem from the question of whether the HHFKA has reduced children’s participation in both school meal and a la carte programs, thereby reducing revenues for many school districts, as well as from the fact that the increase in federal reimbursement rates for these meals does not fully cover the cost of implementing the new standards.
These debates are still playing out, with many supporters of the Act arguing that efforts at improving nutritional standards in school meals have typically resulted in a temporary decrease in participation rates as children and schools resist change, but that over time, school food professionals’ challenges with food procurement and menu planning will decrease and that participation rates and revenues will rise again. This paper will focus on a different aspect of the HHFKA that has too often been over-looked. As the following graphs demonstrate, this is the too little noted fact that while the total number of meals served has decreased since the implementation of the HHFKA, there has been an unprecedented increase in the number of free meals served during the same time period. Looking only at the overall decrease in the number of meal served fails to note the increase in participation in free meals, which is a significant sign that the HHFKA is serving low-income populations more effectively.
This is corroborated through the experiences of the School District of Philadelphia, one of the nation’s poorest cities, with nearly 200,000 people or a third of the city’s population living in deep poverty, or at half the federal poverty line. The success of Philadelphia’s Universal Feeding Program in the 1990s and its continued success under the Community Eligibility Provision of the HHFKA has allowed for an immense increase in school meal access for students. (author abstract)