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The U.S. Congress passed the Child Nutrition Act in 1966 to help ensure that children in the U.S. had access to healthy foods. It was believed that many children who lived in poverty might not be receiving healthy meals at home, so the primary goal of the act was to make sure that they would get those quality meals at school either free of charge or at a reduced rate. For the first time, the federal government took a strong role in setting forth guidelines that school lunch programs needed to follow in order to receive federal funding for lunch programs. The Child Nutrition Act does involve other programs, but the focus of the program involves foods served at public schools.
The Child Nutrition Act is set up so that every five years the program has to be re-enacted. This was done to incorporate new science that might become applicable to nutrition. For instance, in the past few years, new research into the rise of childhood obesity and conditions such as hypoglycemia have led to many changes in the types of foods that can be served at schools. For decades, the guidelines for meals were considered “ingredient” based, which led to foods being served that were often carbohydrate-heavy and over-processed. There is a current movement to have the program use guidelines that are based on requiring specific foods, rather than ingredients.
Some schools believe the Child Nutrition Act is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it does help fund their lunch programs, but that funding requires that the government also have control over what is offered in school vending machines. Schools typically depend on money collected from the vending machines to help offset school costs. For this reason, vending machines that offer candy and soft drinks generate much more cash than do machines that offer more healthy snacks.
In addition to controlling what can be sold in vending machines, the Child Nutrition Act also limits what schools can do with vending machine profits. Profits generated prior to and during the school lunch period must be put back into food funding. Profits generated after lunch is over may be spent at the individual school’s discretion.
Other important wellness programs that fall under the jurisdiction of the Child Nutrition Act include the Summer Food Service Program and the Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). WIC is considered a popular and successful program that provides free food to women who are pregnant or who have small children in the household. The content of the free food is very specific, geared toward increasing consumption of iron, proteins, and fibers.
Where was the Child Nutrition Act at my middle school? The main things I remember being served were breadsticks with nacho cheese sauce, "nachos" (being chips and nacho cheese sauce), personal pizzas and Chinese Food (fried rice or chow mein). Maybe the cafeteria food was healthier? This was in the late 90s. I hope it's gotten better.