A child eats dinner at the Kids Cafe at the Shopneck Boys and Girls Club in Brighton. Newly approved legislation will allow feeding programs such as the Kids Cafes to offer low-income children a third meal, in addition to school breakfast and lunch.

Christmas came early this week for child hunger advocates in Colorado who feared the U.S. Congress might play Grinch and fail to pass a long-sought child nutrition bill.

“There was an audible sound of relief and excitement when it passed,” said Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, who has spent much time this fall lobbying for the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which passed the House of Representatives 254-157 on Thursday. It now goes to President Obama for his signature.

“It was taking a long time,” Watney said. “We had not give up all hope, but there was a lot of concern.”

The act not only reauthorizes spending on the nation’s school lunch programs, it also provides $4.5 billion over the next 10 years to expand and streamline enrollment in those programs, to increase the meal reimbursement rate to schools who adhere to health meal standards and to establish and strengthen nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools.

Advocates find much to love in the legislation

Around Denver, child advocates were unpacking the various parts of the bill, holding them up and admiring them, envisioning how they will impact Colorado. Like an all-you-can-eat buffet, different people were drawn to different parts of the bill.

At Hunger Free Colorado, executive director Kathy Underhill was particularly pleased about that section that provides funding for suppers, in addition to school breakfasts and lunches.

“We already have some after-school programs that provide that third meal, but they’re only reimbursed for snacks,” said Underhill. “So somebody like Food Bank of the Rockies, who does a full meal at their Kids Cafes, with this funding they’ll be able to improve the quality of that meal. It will be huge. Food is a great draw, a great engagement tool.”

Underhill is also excited over the bill’s promised expansion in the number of summer feeding sites. Previously, non-profits who ran summer feeding programs were limited to no more than 25 meal sites. But this past summer, when Colorado obtained a waiver from that restriction, the number of children participating in summer feeding programs shot up.

“In Colorado, we served nearly a million meals to kids last summer. That’s up 26 percent from the summer before,” Underhill said. “That’s a significant statewide change in a year, and it’s because Colorado got that waiver that lifted the cap for nonprofits. Now that that’s been made federal law, it will help those high functioning nonprofits that really want to get in there and serve more kids to do so.”

Legislation means higher nutritional standards for school food, including snacks

At LiveWell Colorado, where the focus in on anti-obesity efforts, officials were applauding the tighter nutritional guidelines, as well as the increased meal reimbursement rates, which will allow school food programs to buy more fresh produce.

“We’re thrilled to see this bill’s passage because the legislation will significantly promote and advance healthy foods in our schools,” said Maren Stewart, president and CEO of LiveWell. “That’s a critical element in the fight against childhood obesity. People have seen that Colorado is ranked as the leanest state in the country, but that’s a ranking that’s for adults. Our childhood obesity rate isn’t as good. We’re 23rd in the country for childhood obesity. It’s a problem in Colorado, and this act will make a big impact.”

The amount the federal government reimburses school districts for meals varies depending on location and on the number of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals, but typically ranges between $2.32 and $2.89 per eligible child, and 26 cents to 34 cents for children who pay full price. Those reimbursement rates, which have not been increased in 30 years, will now go up by 6 cents.

Six cents doesn’t sound like much, but when multiplied by thousands of children every day, it adds up, Stewart said.

“What we hope to see in the short term is that schools will take advantage of the increase by serving more fruits and vegetables and whole grains. It can make a big difference,” she said.

Another section of the bill for the first time requires all foods served at school – including snacks – to meet minimum nutritional standards. At the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Watney was happily envisioning vending machines stocked with granola bars, apples and water rather than candy bars, potato chips and sugary drinks.

“It seems counterintuitive, but with childhood poverty on the rise in Colorado, we’re also seeing hunger and obesity on the rise. Kids who may be either hungry or coming from homes with food instability are more likely to grab a snack from a vending machine during the morning. And if what is available there is candy and potato chips, that leads to an increase in obesity,” Watney said. “The reality is that kids are like all of us. Sometimes they just go for what’s there. So it’s our responsibility to see to it that what’s there will feed their bodies and their minds.”

Watney said a survey last year of 23 of the largest school districts in Colorado – accounting for 80 percent of the state’s school enrollment – revealed that only four districts required snacks to meet minimum nutritional standards. Now, all districts will be required to implement those standards.

Kids Cafes already serving suppers to youngsters

At Food Bank of the Rockies, officials aren’t sure just how the new legislation will impact them, but expect it will only be good.

“We hope we’ll be able to expand the number of sites, and increase what we can give the kids at their meals,” said Janie Gianotsos, director of community relations and marketing.

As of October, the food bank was running 18 Kids Café sites, serving full suppers to about 1,000 youngsters each day, plus 107 snack sites serving another 2,600 kids daily.  For each of those 28,300 monthly meals, the organization is reimbursed just 74 cents apiece. It spends around $1 per meal, depending on how much is purchased and how much can be made with donated foodstuffs.

Next month, the organization plans to open a community kitchen at which to prepare the hot meals, then deliver them to the dispersed sites.

“They eat early, around 4 p.m.,” Gianotsos said. “They come directly after school and play awhile, then they have a sit-down meal, then go back and play some more. For a lot of these kids, there’s nothing for them to eat at home. For some, their home situtation is extremely dire. These meals are extremely important for these kids.”

Funding the bill remains problematic

Despite the rejoicing at the bill’s promises, some lumps of coal remain.

Opponents of the bill – including two Colorado Republicans, Rep. Mike Coffman and Rep. Doug Lamborn – questioned the bill’s price tag and its increased spending at a time when the deficit is causing ever-greater concern.

“I joined with the National School Boards Association and the American Association of School Administrators in opposing the legislation because of its costly unfunded federal mandates on school districts as well as my concern over the $4.5 billion in new spending,” Coffman said in a statement.

Even Underhill is distressed that the source of the funds to pay for the program is the nation’s food stamp program.

“I hate to see food stamp benefits raided,” she said. “I am hopeful they will fix that yet during this lame duck session.”

She said public opinion appears to be very much on the side of funding anti-hunger programs. She said that a newly-completed statewide poll commissioned by Hunger-Free Colorado found that 70 percent of respondents oppose cutting state and local hunger programs as a way to balance the budget, and of that number, 49 percent said they were “strongly opposed.”

“That’s from every region of the state, including liberals, moderates and conservatives,” she said. “The people in Colorado want this issue addressed.”

More information:

Read a summary of the bill’s provisions.