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Farm Fresh or Fries: How Much Is Good Nutrition Worth?

Washington faces reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act this fall.

Spending an additional six cents on lunch may seem like a nominal burden. But multiply six cents by the 31 million children who receive school lunches daily and it’s a lot of extra fries as Washington faces reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act this fall.

Television personality Rachael Ray (left) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D- N.Y) visit Payne Elementary School in Washington, D.C., to lobby for increased child nutrition funding.

The law, which includes School Breakfast and National School Lunch Programs, the Summer Food Service Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program, is reviewed every five years. The funding reaches 95 percent of American schools, providing 5 billion lunches and 1.8 billion breakfasts per year. Reimbursement rates for schools have not increased and have only been adjusted for inflation since 1973. The reimbursement remains at $2.68 per child per day. Despite tight budgets, school nutrition advocates hope for an increase to help districts serve healthy options.

To date, two bills have been proposed. In the Senate, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 advocates boosting funding by $4.5 billion over 10 years. The House has passed the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act, which includes an increase of $8 billion over 10 years. Both bills request raising the reimbursement rate by six cents per child. The bills are inching closer to the $10 billion that President Obama carved out as part of his pledge to eradicate childhood hunger by 2015. “Both bills are extending the reach to more students who are at risk for malnutrition and obesity as well as adding support for establishing some additional nutrition standards,” says Dora Rivas, president of the School Nutrition Association (SNA ).

“The Effects on the National School Lunch Program on Education and Health,” a study conducted by Georgetown University Professor Peter Hinrichs and released in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, found that the National School Lunch Program has great impact on educational attainment. Some fear the proposed funding won’t be enough. The SNA recommended an increase of 35 cents per child. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is pushing for an additional 70 cents per child.

“I do believe that six cents is a good step forward,” says Virginia Stallings, president of Dannon Institute U.S. “If we spend the old and new money wisely, it will help improve the quality of meals. It’s a little more money to offset the costs.”