USDA Releases Multiple New Measures to Increase Children’s Access to Healthy Food

Nutrition

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been quite busy over the last couple weeks releasing new information and documents that will help children gain access to critical nutrition supports and healthier school environments.

First Lady Michelle Obama announced the next set of regulations that USDA is proposing in implementing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the proposed rule for local wellness policies. In addition to strengthening nutrition and physical activity in schools, the rule includes a new provision to limit unhealthy food and beverage marketing in schools.

Nutrition and physical activity local wellness policies (LWP) were updated through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to strengthen implementation measures, increase community engagement, better inform parents about the policies, and provide schools with technical assistance.

For the first time, LWPs will need to address food marketing in schools. The rule proposes that school districts only allow marketing of foods that meet the new USDA Smart Snacks guidelines (i.e., the standards for foods sold through vending, a la carte, school stores, and other competitive foods that will go into effect on July 1, 2014). USDA is currently seeking comment on the proposed rule until April 28, 2014 and First Focus will submit comments in the near future. Interested organizations can submit comments here.

The First Lady also drew attention to recent USDA guidance on the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which was included in Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act as well. This provision allows schools that have at least 40% of their students qualifying for free meals to serve free meals to all students with out having to collect applications from all students. Schools will need to serve both breakfast and lunch to students and will need to calculate their free school meal reimbursement rates through programs such as SNAP and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. CEP will help schools increase participation in the child nutrition programs by offering breakfast and lunch free to all students with out added paperwork. USDA issued guidance and a memo regarding frequently asked questions to help inform schools, as this provision will take effect nation wide July 1, 2014. There also is guidance to help schools that rely on school lunch data for Title 1 programs and how the process for data collection for the two programs can work together and be less burdensome for schools.

School meals were not the only focus of recent information released by USDA. The department recently released a final food package rule for the Special Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). The WIC program is a federally funded program that provides nutrition and breastfeeding education, nutritious foods, and healthcare for low and moderate-income women and children with, or those at risk of developing, nutrition-related health problems.

The updated food package that USDA released makes science-based decision in determining what food items should be in the WIC food package. The final WIC food package will increase access to fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy for pregnant women, as well as children. Most excitingly the cash value for fruit and vegetable vouchers per child will increase from $6 to $8 per month and fresh fruits and vegetables may be substituted for a portion of prepared baby food purchases for infants between the ages of 9 months and 11 months. USDA continues to not allow white potatoes to be apart of the food package and reiterates that IOM research states that the population that participates in WIC already receives their recommend daily serving of white potatoes. Additionally, USDA asks that IOM complete updated research on all WIC items in the near future so that the most up to date science can be used in determining food items.

Last week President Obama and USDA released a fiscal year 2015 budget that continues to invest in our nations children to help prepare a strong and healthy future workforce and military for our country. The Administration’s budget fully funds child nutrition programs and again this year, the president proposes $35 million for competitive grants to fund school meal equipment and other school resources that are needed for the implementation of the school meals standards. In addition the budget also provides $30 million for Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer for Children projects. According to USDA, preliminary research indicates these projects are effective in reducing child hunger during the summer. Through its budget, the Administration shows that it understands the importance of our country’s children needing to be fed and have access to healthy foods in school so that they can better learn and grow up to be healthy adults.