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Report: Better School Meals Good for Kids, Communities

Amy Mayer/IPR
Soup and broccoli on a cafeteria tray in Northeast Iowa reflect the additional vegetables required by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.

The law that sets standards for school meals is up for reauthorization this year.

The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act aims to increase childhood nutrition by bringing more fruits and vegetables to school cafeterias. But controversy has stymied the legislation since it became law in 2010.

Critics say re-designed meals are expensive and leave some kids unsatisfied. Some also say that many children throw away the fruits and vegetables they’re now required to take.

The Union of Concerned Scientists supports the law. In a new report, the organization says national data shows kids eating habits have improved. 

“What we want to reemphasize is that there are larger studies that are done nationally and they look at multiple schools across the country,” says Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, a co-author of the report. “And they’re showing that children are actually eating more fruits and vegetables and they’re not actually throwing away more food.”

Across the nation, districts large and small, urban and rural have expanded the fresh fruit and vegetable offerings, often by teaming up with local providers thanks to incentives in the law. Betti Wiggins is in charge of food service for the Detroit Public Schools. She says continuing the act’s programs will benefit more than school kids.

“The reauthorization of the Healthy and Hunger Free [Kids] Act not only increases access to fresh fruits and vegetables for our children,” she says, “but it also has money that supports our local farmers.”

Wiggins spoke to reporters as part of the Union of Concern Scientists launch of its school lunch report.

The Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative, which received a grant through the law, is featured on a full page of the report. The rural region has started school gardens and worked with area farmers to increase the amount of their vegetables served in cafeterias.

The current standards are set to expire at the end of September.