The Impact of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 on National School Meal Participation Rates

Reviewed by Sam Henick

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010 authorized $4.5 billion in new funding for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s core child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. The HHFKA was made to achieve two key objectives: promote stricter nutritional requirements and improve school meal programs, which are a “critical nutrition and hunger safety net for millions of children.” The author focused on the second goal and argues that though the total number of meals served has decreased since the implementation of the HHFKA, there has been an unprecedented increase in the number of free meals served during the same time period, a fact which is often overlooked.

The economic recession of 2009 coupled with a rise in food insecurity— the lack of consistent, dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living—made reform necessary, and the author argues that HHFKA has definitely had a positive impact on participation rates (and, therefore, access to a more nutritious diet) in low-income areas. Two steps that were successful in reaching this goal were direct certification, which allows individual schools and school districts with a high proportion of low-income students to implement universal free meals by using existing federal and state data to establish their poverty rates (as opposed to having to collect their own data from individual household meal applications, thus significantly reducing the paperwork burden on households, schools and school districts), and the implementation of an Afterschool Meal Program, which made it possible for children in low-income communities to receive additional food outside of the School Breakfast and National School Lunch Programs.

Schools that implement the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which became available for all schools and school districts nationwide in the 2014-2015 school year, can serve free breakfast and lunch to all students, as well as offer afterschool snack and supper to students participating in afterschool programs, regardless of a child’s individual financial status while students enrolled at CEP schools qualify automatically for two free meals a day, plus any additional meals provided through the Summer Food Service and Afterschool Meal Programs.

All of this is critical, as the author writes, because “improving children’s food security through school meals is a key means not only to improving their health and development, but also their school performance.” To address the criticism of HHFKA that the number of students participating in the National School Lunch Program has decreased, the author cites the Government Accountability Office to state that the decline primarily due to the departure of large numbers of “full price” students from the program. This decline masks the positive increase in free and reduced meals served through the National School Lunch Program, a trend that has occurred since 2000 and became more dramatic with the passage of the HHFKA.

The author concludes that the guarantee of free and reduced price breakfast and lunch at school is essential for eligible students’ health and well-being and that “increased participation rates in national school meal programs for at-risk students means that these children have access to food, which is a basic human need that should continue to be addressed in future child nutrition reauthorization acts.”

Though the author does not focus on the controversial and important debate on the nutrition of the meals, by focusing on the increase in free meals, she does present an important, though overlooked, perspective on the HHFKA.

See the full paper here!

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