why the act is needed

Children in the District of Columbia are at risk of serious health problems stemming from hunger, poor nutrition, inadequate physical activity, and environmental degradation in our community. Poor nutrition and lack of physical activity are the second leading cause of preventable death in D.C.

These statistics give a snapshot of the issues that the Act helps to address:

  • 40.6% of households with children reported that in 2009 they were unable to afford enough food in the last year.
  • 43% of all D.C. school-age children are obese or overweight.
  • 81% of children do not get the USDA-recommended 5 fruits and vegetables a day.
  • Only about 30% of District children do the CDC-recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day.
  • Estimated annual health care costs associated with obesity in D.C. are $372 million and rising.

School breakfast and school lunch are critical, proven ways to reduce hunger and improve wellness among school-age children. But numerous obstacles can prevent children from eating school meals: many students arrive at school too late to eat breakfast in the cafeteria, before the school day begins.; children may feel a stigma that school meals are just for “poor kids”; children may need to pay a co-payment for breakfast and lunch that their families cannot afford.

Increasing participation in school meals not only reduces childhood hunger, but also improves children’s diets. Research indicates that school meal participants are less likely to consume competitive foods at school, less likely to have nutrient inadequacies, and more likely to consume fruit, vegetables, and milk at breakfast and lunch. School meals may be the most effective tool for combating obesity in poor children. Breakfast, in particular, improves children’s health, and school breakfast has proven benefits for children’s learning.

Free breakfast supports families living on very tight budgets who cannot afford to provide good breakfasts at home every day nor the money to buy them at school.

Serving breakfast in the classroom, or offering grab and go breakfast to students, are just two of the innovative breakfast serving models that help make breakfast more accessible after the school day begins. Schools across the country are finding that breakfast in the classroom and other delivery innovations are the best ways to bring the benefits of school breakfast to all students.

Before the Healthy Schools Act, D.C. Public Schools charged 20 cents and charter schools charged up to 40 cents for reduced-price lunch. For a family with two children earning just $33,900 a year, the co-payment for school lunch could add up to $360 over the course of a school year. Low-income families struggling with fixed costs for food, rent, utilities, transportation, and child care often do not have spare money for co-payments. When schools charge interests on student accounts or deny children a meal when their accounts maintain a balance, this co-payment can constitute a serious hardship.

District students eat many of their meals – breakfast, lunch, snack, and sometimes even supper  – at school every day. That means school meals play an important part in making sure children have access to healthy food so that they can learn and thrive. This is especially true for the more than 70% of D.C. students who qualify for free and reduced-price school meals.

Farm to School programs bring locally-grown products fresh from the farm to student’s trays. Farm to School programs can help expand students knowledge about food, health, and environmental issues, and improve the quality and nutrition of school meal options, while supporting the local food economy.

Creating and sustaining an environmentally-friendly school environment is essential to the health and wellness of students and staff, as well as the health of the local environment and community. Environmental education programs, like school gardens, have positive effects on students learning and can provide fun, hands-on learning opportunities.

Competitive foods matter to health and nutrition efforts in schools because these foods and beverages are often high in calories and low in nutrients. Making these unhealthy foods available at schools undermines efforts to promote healthy diets and prevent obesity. Competitive foods also compete with healthy school meals. When competitive foods are available, participation in school lunch and breakfast decreases. In some school cafeterias, the sales of competitive foods end up being subsidized by federal school meal reimbursement.

Children from low-income families are especially harmed by the presence of competitive foods. Peer pressure and stigma can drive students to purchase competitive foods or skip free and reduced-price meals.