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Law will reshape student nutrition in Federal Way schools

Congress passed a law that will eventually affect Federal Way residents who have children that eat a school-provided lunch.

The Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act was approved by Congress on Dec. 2. The law aims to make school lunches healthier, extend free and reduced lunch privileges to more students who qualify, and raise the federal reimbursement rate for subsidized food for the first time in 30 years.

It will be a while before the law makes its way into cafeteria lunch lines. After the president signs it, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will have to write a set of rules defining how to make school lunches healthier.

Locally, U.S. Rep. Adam Smith (D-District 9) voted in favor of the bill, as did U.S. Sen. Patty Murray when the law was before the Senate in August. In the House, the bill passed with 264 Democrats and four Republicans voting “yes,” and four Democrats and 153 Republicans voting “no.”

Federal Way School District nutrition services director Mary Asplund praised the law because, she said, proper nutrition supports education. Federal Way is already using some practices anticipated in the new law, such as using whole grains in menu items like pizza, and buying produce and fruit locally. Asplund said that a slice of Federal Way pizza contains 30 percent of its calories from fat, which is in line with federal dietary standards.

The school system also offers fruits, vegetables and salads with meals.

“We have increased fruits and vegetable choices in schools, and so what the children see would be fresh salads every day, apples, oranges and carrots,” she said.

Federal Way is part of a food buying cooperative in the Puget Sound region. Asplund said nutrition services directors are always on top of dietary trends. For example, they’re looking at ways to reduce sodium. Federal Way is also looking to introduce new foods to students’ palates. They’re testing new items like granola and curry chicken.

The Federal Way School District gets its food from Food Services of America. The company is asked by schools to provide food with a specific nutritional profile, like low-fat and low-sodium marinara sauce, for example. The company delivers food components to the school system (or sometimes whole items, like pizza or hamburger patties), which are then constructed by cooks. By its own estimates, the school system serves around 12,000 meals per day.

Federal Way is bound by United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations, and must wait until that agency changes its regulations before it can act.

“We’re looking forward to getting the regulations from Olympia,” Asplund said. “I’m very glad there’s the support necessary for child nutrition to pass this bill. It, after all, supports education, which is the mission of our district.”

The act amends a lot of the 1946 Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act, which provides subsidies to schools to provide free or reduced meals to qualifying students. Schools and other non-profit child service centers can participate in the program. In 2009, the school lunch program served more than 30 million students and cost around $9 billion, according to the USDA.

Among the highlights of the new law are:

• Provides an increase of 6 cents reimbursement per meal for school districts that abide by new, yet-to-be determined nutritional standards.

• Requires that schools offers free water in school dining areas.

• Requires that new nutrition regulations apply to all food sold in schools, including vending machines. It’s unclear whether school bake sales will be affected.

• Sets aside a small amount of money for “farm to school” programs to connect schools with local produce and to set up gardens at schools.

• Will allow students to be eligible for free or reduced lunch based on Medicaid data, which is anticipated to increase the number of free and reduced eligible students by about 100,000.

• Free and reduced lunch income eligibility for individual schools will be determined by local census data.

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