November 17, 2009

As Congress Begins Debate Over New School Lunch Legislation, Gillibrand Unveils Her Agenda To Improve Quality Of Food, Expand Access To More Students

Would Increase Funding, Streamline Enrollment Process, Promote School Breakfasts, Eliminate Junk Food and Trans Fats

Washington, DC - As Congress begins debate over new school lunch legislation, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand today launched her agenda to improve the quality of food served in schools and expand access to more students across New York.  With child obesity rising and the difficult economy resulting in thousands of more hungry schoolchildren, Senator Gillibrand is announcing plans to push for an increase in funding, streamline enrollment process, promote school breakfast services, and eliminate junk food and trans fats from schools. Nearly 3 million children across New York are enrolled in the National School Lunch program.

"Every child deserves the opportunity to succeed and achieve their full potential," Senator Gillibrand said. "But too many children who should be receiving free, healthy meals are not enrolled in programs available to them - and they're paying the price in their grades, health and future. My legislation will expand eligibility and cut red-tape so more of our children can access the healthy meals they need at school to help them focus and succeed. And we will improve the quality of school meals so our children eat the healthy, nutritious foods they need to succeed."

Obesity rates and hunger rates among school children are rising rapidly.  Over the last 30 years, obesity among American children ages six to 11 has more than doubled - from 6.5 percent to 17 percent. In the same timeframe, obesity among 12 to 19-year-olds has more than tripled - from five percent to nearly 18 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition to obesity, many more children are now coming to school hungry because of the economic recession and resorting to cheaper, less nutritious food options.

Obesity puts our children at risk of developing serious diseases - such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and depression. And studies show that being overweight or obese can have a negative impact on math and reading scores - and keep students out of school for more sick days.

Across New York, nearly 3 million schoolchildren are enrolled in the National School Lunch program, which provided more than $510 million for New York schools last school year.

READ Senator Gillibrand's full report on the importance of the National School Lunch program for New York.

  • In New York City, nearly 1.2 million school children are enrolled in the National School Lunch program, which provided nearly $300 million for school lunches last year.
  • In Western New York, more than 230,000 schoolchildren are enrolled in the National School Lunch program, which provided more than $34 million for school lunches last school year.
  • In the Rochester-Finger Lakes Region, more than 190,000 schoolchildren are enrolled in the National School Lunch program, which provided nearly $28 million for school lunches last year.
  • In Central New York, nearly 165,000 schoolchildren are enrolled in the National School Lunch program, which provided more than $23 million for school lunches last year.
  • In the Southern Tier, more than 110,000 schoolchildren are enrolled in the National School Lunch program, which provided more than $17 million for school lunches last year.
  • In the Capital Region, more than 175,000 schoolchildren are enrolled in the National School Lunch program, which provided more than $20 million for school lunches last year.
  • In the North Country, more than 85,000 schoolchildren are enrolled in the National School Lunch program, which provided nearly $12 million for school lunches last year.
  • In the Hudson Valley, nearly 370,000 schoolchildren are enrolled in the National School Lunch program, which provided nearly $50 million for school lunches last year.
  • On Long Island, nearly 450,000 schoolchildren are enrolled in the National School Lunch program, which provided nearly $40 million for school lunches last year.

To combat child hunger, expand access to free and discounted school meals, and improve the quality of food served at schools, Senator Gillibrand will push for the following items as Congress begins debate on school lunch legislation.

1. Increase Federal Reimbursements for School Lunches
Senator Gillibrand is working to increase the federal reimbursement rate for schools participating in the National School Lunch Program. The current reimbursement rates schools receive do not even keep pace with the rate of inflation.

As Congress begins debate on the Child Nutrition Act, Senator Gillibrand is working to increase school reimbursements by 70 cents - from $2.57 per meal to $3.27 per meal - helping schools afford healthier meals. By providing more funding for school lunches, schools would have more resources to improve the nutritional content of meals and provide more fresh fruits and vegetables to children.

2. Streamline Enrollment and Expand Access to School Lunch Program
A report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that in 20 states, only 20 percent of eligible children are enrolled in the program. For many students and school districts, the complicated application process is a major obstacle that keeps free, healthy meals out of reach for millions of schoolchildren.

Senator Gillibrand is announcing her support for legislation to cut red tape and streamline the process for enrolling children into the school lunch program through direct certification, which determines family eligibility that relies on existing data. Using community data instead of requiring each student to register individually would promote broader participation in the national school lunch program.

The Hunger Free Schools Act would improve and expand access to the school lunch program for children, promote direct certification, reduce paperwork and administrative costs, and utilize technology. Under direct certification, school districts would be able to automatically enroll children in the school lunch programs for families that qualify for food assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the State Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and Medicaid.

3. Ensure the Safety of School Meals
In response to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report revealing that federal agencies are not providing adequate information to schools about contaminated foods that are being pulled from grocery shelves, Senator Gillibrand introduced the Safe Food for Schools Act, which would require federal agencies to issue proper alerts to schools.

Senator Gillibrand has said that parents should have confidence that the food their children are served at school is safe and free of contaminants, but schools aren't getting the information they need from the federal government to keep our kids safe from tainted products. Food items that are being pulled from grocery store shelves across the country are still being served to millions of school children. It's wrong, it's dangerous, and we need to take action.

4. Provide Targeted Assistance to High Cost Areas in New York
Currently, children at schools across the nation are all held to the same eligibility standard - those living at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line or $28,665 for a family of four. However, in high cost areas, the federal poverty line does not accurately reflect the high cost of living, which leaves many of New York's neediest children without access to the nutritious school meals they need.

To address this inequity, Senator Gillibrand has authored the Lowering Urban Nutrition Costs for Healthy Eating at Schools (LUNCHES) Act, which eliminates the disadvantage that New York City children have when qualifying for free and nutritious school meal programs. For those children who live in high cost areas, the LUNCHES Act would expand free meals to all children living under 185 percent of the federal poverty line or $40,792 for a family of four.

Any county in which the fair market rent is above the national average will be deemed high cost. Currently, this includes at least 13 New York counties - Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Ulster, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Queens, Kings, Richmond, New York, Bronx, and Dutchess counties.

5. Promote Healthy School Breakfasts
Currently, only 10.1 million children - less than one-quarter of the children enrolled in the School Breakfast Program - are accessing the free or discounted breakfasts they are entitled to.  In fact, more than 20 million fewer children take advantage of the School Breakfast Program than the School Lunch Program, despite evidence showing a healthy breakfast is the best way for all students to start their day.

Studies show that eating breakfast helps children stay alert and focused in class - helping them perform better in school by improving math, reading and standardized test scores - and helps children get along better with their classmates.

To promote school breakfast, Senator Gillibrand is pushing the Student Breakfast and Education Improvement Act of 2009, which would promote the benefits of a healthy, daily breakfast and expand innovative, successful breakfast programs.  In New York City for instance, one school has instituted a "Grab and Go" pilot program, which provides easy carry items like juice, bagels, and breakfast sandwiches to students in school hallways in order to encourage students to eat breakfast and combat the stigma of free or reduced breakfast.

6. Eliminate Junk Food and Trans Fat
Right now, the federal government only has the authority to regulate nutritional food that it pays for through the National School Lunch Act.  However, many schools also provide a large amount of food that is not reimbursed by the government and not subject to any regulations.  This so-called "competitive food" includes soft drinks, pre-packaged snacks and items from fast food chains that directly compete with healthier offerings.

The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act would enable Congress and the Secretary of Agriculture to regulate these foods and apply new nutritious standards to all the food that is regularly served on school grounds.

The new legislation will give authority to the Department of Agriculture to create nutritional guidelines to apply to all foods served at a school during the school day.  By enabling the Secretary to promulgate rules for sugar content in beverages and fat content in snacks, this legislation is a first step to getting the unhealthy food out of schools.

The legislation exempts occasional school fundraisers or food sold at extracurricular activities held on school grounds, in which schools sell brownies, candy, and other snacks to pay for school programs or initiatives.

Earlier this year, Senator Gillibrand introduced legislation that would ban trans fat in public schools and she plans to attach that legislation to the Child Nutrition Act. Any school that receives federal reimbursements would be required to remove food containing trans fat from the school.  Schools would have a five year window to implement the policy.  The legislation would also include waivers for pre-existing contracts and special circumstances.

New York City has been the national leader on this issue, banning trans fat in restaurants and phasing trans fats our of public schools. Now, Senator Gillibrand's legislation will set the rest of the state and the rest of the country on the same path - ensuring that children are more likely to consume fresh fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious foods.


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