Are Idaho teachers and school officials at risk of violating federal law if they serve candy or “junk food” to students?
Such practices are already discouraged by the Idaho Department of Education and by many local school district policies, but in the coming years an innocent serving of a “treat,” and the lack of access to certain prescribed foods, could lead Idaho educators to run afoul of a law signed by President Barack Obama nearly three years ago.
“In 2009, our department formulated and released our own recommendations for school meals,” said Melissa McGrath, spokesperson for the state education department. Noting that federal regulations and guidelines on school nutrition come largely through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), McGrath told IdahoReporter.com that Idaho’s school meals guidelines “were stricter than the USDA guidelines at that time.”
But since that time, a new federal law has emerged that allows the USDA and other federal agencies very broad authority to augment current guidelines on school nutrition. Known officially as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA), it was signed into law by President Obama in 2010, but it has yet to be fully augmented in all 50 states.
“To my knowledge, the First Lady (Michelle Obama) was an advocate for the passage of this legislation,” McGrath said. And not only did Mrs. Obama advocate for the legislation, the HHFKA is essentially the legal enforcement of her “Let’s Move” children’s exercise and nutrition public relations campaign.
One optional component of the HHFKA law, known as the Community Eligibility Option, provides federally funded meal services to all students at participating public schools, regardless of the student’s socio-economic status. According to a letter to state school superintendents authored by U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan, a gradual phasing-in of this program began during the 2011-12 school year in select school districts within the states of Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan, and will be made available as an option to school districts nationwide in the 2014-15 school year.
However, it appears that the nutritional requirements portion of the HHFKA will be mandatory, although it has yet to be implemented among the states (implementation is expected to begin sometime in 2014). The law will grant to the USDA broad new powers to revamp standards for food sold on campuses during the school day, including food sold in vending machines; authorizes additional funds for school districts to implement these new food standards; provides funding for schools to acquire fresh produce from local area farms; and sets federal standards for school “wellness policies.”
The law will also expand the number of eligible children for federally funded school meal programs, authorize the USDA to provide meals to children’s after school programs, require schools to be “audited” every three years to assure their compliance with the new federal requirements, provide funding for federal training of school food servers and require schools to increase students’ access to fresh drinking water.
Michelle Obama has already begun a public relations campaign promoting the health benefits of drinking water ahead of the implementation of the school mandates.
The impact that the full implementation of the HHFKA will have on Idaho schools is problematic at this point. McGrath said that at the state level, Idaho is fully compliant with federal public schools’ nutrition requirements as they exist right now.
Some local school districts are looking ahead, however, and anticipating the new, and likely much more stringent federal restrictions on food served in schools.
Allison Westfall, spokesperson for the Nampa School District, told IdahoReporter.com that “the emphasis on healthy food choices in cafeterias and in classrooms predates the current federal administration,” but acknowledged that new regulations would expand current regulations. Westfall added that federal law since 2006 has required public schools to provide student “wellness programs” (Nampa School District’s wellness program can be viewed HERE), but she noted that even this could be subject to change.
But what about the serving of not-so-healthy treats? “Our policy encourages healthy party treats and snacks but does not dictate specific foods or ban specific foods,” Westfall said of the district’s current policy. “Unrelated to all of this, some classrooms may ban specific foods because of a child with severe allergies but that is a case-by-case situation.”
In the Coeur d’Alene School District, things are similar to the Nampa School District on nutrition and snack policies. “The wellness policy for Coeur d’Alene Public Schools has always been directed to the school day,” explained Ed Ducar, director of nutrition services at the school district. “School staff shall not use food as a reward for student accomplishment.” In addition, “The withholding of food as punishment for students is prohibited, and the nutrition guidelines have never been directed toward afterschool, evening or parent-sponsored or fundraising activities.”
Ducar also told IdahoReporter.com that “providing healthy options at occasional class parties and activities is strongly encouraged,” and that “notices shall be sent to parents and guardians either separately or as part of a school newsletter, reminding them of the necessity of providing healthy treats for students. Only commercially prepared and packaged products or products, which have been prepared by the district food services department, are encouraged.”