by Allie Molinaro
The Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act, a bill released by the House Education and Labor Committee late Wednesday, includes $10 million in grants for plant-based meals in schools.
UPDATE: The House Education and Labor Committee passed the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act (H.R. 8450) including Section 604 on July 27th, 2022 with a vote of 27 - 19. Tell your Representative to support the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act now.
America's child nutrition programs are woefully out of date. The last Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which dictates federal spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), school meals, childcare center meals, and a suite of other programs, was last updated in 2010—before many of us even had smartphones. With growing inflation, increasing cases of diet-related disease, a deteriorating climate, and 60 billion animals crammed into factory farms, it's high time our government's investments in food and nutrition were updated to reflect our changing world.
Our nation's school system will support over 50.7 million students this fall, many of whom rely on school-provided lunches. For students in food insecure households, school meals may be their only meal of the day. Sadly, most school meals, including most of those subsidized by the USDA Foods program, have poor nutritional value and greatly misalign with the USDA's own Dietary Guidelines. A 2019 study analyzing school meal options in California's 25 largest school districts found that the top entrees offered included cheeseburgers, pizza, hot dogs, chicken tenders, ground beef meals, and deli meat sandwiches. Half of the top ten meals contained red or processed meat, which are a growing health concern for diet-related diseases, and none of the top meals offered were plant-based. In fact, only 4% of the school meals offered were plant-based, and most of those were nut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Last week, Congress finally introduced a new Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill called the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act. In addition to much-needed reforms to WIC, the National School Lunch Act, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, and more, the bill also includes a historic provision within its "Improving Capacity and Promoting Sustainability" section for plant-based foods in schools. Modeled after the Healthy Future Students and Earth Act introduced by Representative Nydia Velazquez (D-NY-07) last year, the provision allocates $10 million in grants for pilot programs incorporating 100% plant-based meals into school offerings. Priority will be given to school districts that serve a high proportion of students who receive free or reduced-price meals and those who are also seeking to incorporate culturally appropriate plant-based meals, nutrition education, or agricultural education related to plant-based food.
The grant funding can be used for:
- costs for professional development training on 100% plant-based food preparation, procurement, menu creation, etc. for food service personnel
- compensation for extra hours spent on staff training
- assistance and student engagement for taste tests, recipe development, and culinary education
- procurement costs of plant-based food from local farmers and underserved producers
The inclusion of the pilot program in the latest Child Nutrition Reauthorization comes off the heels of another major win last month, in which California passed legislation allocating $100 million to support schools in procuring plant-based and sustainably produced foods.
This landmark provision serves as a signal to Congress that times have changed. Americans—especially our youth—are increasingly concerned about how their food choices impact personal health, the environment, climate change, and animal welfare. And it is time that the seven billion meals served to our students each year satisfy their appetite for a better future.