No More Feeding Tots to Tots: The USDA Wants 3.8 Million Kids to Eat Healthier

School lunches may have gotten a much-needed makeover, but a significant group was left out.

(Photo: Lihee Avidan/Getty Images)

Jul 2, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Josh Scherer has written for Epicurious, Thrillist, and Los Angeles magazine. He is constantly covered in corn chip crumbs.

By now, most people have heard of the Michelle Obama–backed Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which reformed school lunch standards to double the amount of fruit and vegetable options and cut back on the fried, processed starches. Whether it was through conservative talking heads overblowing its supposed failures on network television, Twitter storms of #ThanksMichelleObama from students commiserating about newly tater tot–less lunches, or viral videos of the first lady asking kids the poignant, hard-hitting question “Turnip for what?”, it has officially occupied a patch of grass in the American political consciousness.

However, people may be less familiar with its predecessor, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which was first implemented in 1968 and sought to ensure children in licensed or approved day care centers, settlement houses, and recreation centers were receiving nutritious meals, especially in low-income areas. Even though its guidelines were phased out in favor of the HHFKA in 2010 for all primary education eateries, there are still 3.8 million children in day care centers and emergency shelters eating the old American standard meal of meat, starch, and more starch. The USDA wants to change that: Earlier this week, officials proposed a series of changes that would update the Child and Adult Care Food program and make day care grub—in both private and public, for-profit and nonprofit facilities—signficiantly healthier.

So, Why Should You Care? America has one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the world. As of April 2015, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, 18 percent of all six- to 11-year-olds are obese—and that number has doubled in the past 30 years. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed to combat childhood obesity, but many educators say it hasn’t been well received by students. Obviously, kids are going to prefer chocolate milk over regular and tater tots over green beans, and one way to get kids to appreciate vegetables may be to introduce them at a younger age. If the USDA were to reform the Child and Adult Care Food Program to the new standards, fewer kids would be indocrinated into the ketchup-as-a-vegetable lifestyle.

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The act currently relies on a reimbursement system: The day care facility serves food, and if it meets the federal standards, the government cuts the facility a check. The USDA’s new proposal would make grain-based desserts like cookies, cakes, and pies non-reimbursable, along with food that is deep-fried on site. Children under one year old would no longer be given juice under the new guidelines, and non-white-potato vegetables would be encouraged.

The reimbursement system as it stands now has proven to be problematic in some cases. Because facilities get a bigger check the more federally approved food they serve, administrators are incentivized to discourage parents from sending their child in with outside food—even if it’s healthy. One mother reported to Civil Eats that she was forced to acquire a doctor’s note claiming food allergies if her daughter was to forgo her federally approved Rice Krispie Treat for a healthier snack brought from home. If the USDA’s new proposal were to pass, those problems could be at least somewhat mitigated.

The program currently has an annual budget of $3 billion, and according to the USDA, the new guidelines would be completely cost-neutral. According to a report by The Associated Press, it’s unclear whether a final decision will be reached on the proposal, but some facilities have started implelementing the rule changes on their own.