States Dig in to Fund New School-Lunch Rules

Friday, September 16, 2011

The biggest overhaul to school lunches in the past 15 years is giving states heartburn.

The federal government has mandated a healthier menu, and state and school officials are trying to figure out how to cope with the added costs.

At issue is the sweeping Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that Congress passed last year at the urging of first lady Michelle Obama, who has launched a childhood anti-obesity campaign. The aim is to replace the junk food and unhealthy lunches common in many schools with more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and less salt and fat.

"Although the federal government is giving states some upfront money to implement the new law, this equates to an unfunded mandate of hundreds of millions of dollars that goes into perpetuity," says Jeannemarie Davis, who heads Virginia's liaison office in Washington, D.C.

The new healthier lunches are to be in schools for the start of the 2012-13 school year. In the meantime, states and schools are grappling with more than a dozen rules and proposals from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that put the law into place.

The proposed nutrition standards, for example, specify that schools offer every week "dark green and orange vegetables" and that at least half of the grains be whole-grain. The amount and types of recommended food also differ by students' ages.

Supporters say the new law will go a long way toward reducing childhood obesity; opponents say it's yet another example of federal overreach.

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