School's out, but the debate continues over what's served in the lunchroom
By Sara Wyant
If you’ve talked to any of your school-age children about what they have been eating—or perhaps not eating—at school over the last year, you’d probably hear a wide variety of responses. I’ve heard from some children who love to eat more fruits and vegetables each day and others who complain that they just aren’t getting enough tasty foods to eat. It seems like there is little middle ground.
The debate has been playing out in the halls of Congress in recent week as members of the House Appropriations Committee approved provisions in an agricultural funding bill that would allow school districts who had a net loss in their lunch programs over six months to seek a waiver from the regulations. The Senate version contains no similar waiver.
The new rules require schools to serve more whole grain-rich foods, fruits and vegetables and cut down on sugar, sodium and fat in the over 31 million federally subsidized meals served each year. The new requirements have been phased in since 2010, after passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
However, several school leaders complained that older students are opting out of the program altogether, costing their districts money. Even schools in first lady Michelle Obama’s former “backyard,” the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, have decided it’s more cost-effective to drop out of the federal school lunch program than meet all of the regulations and deal with excessive food waste.
But the first lady isn’t taking this pushback lightly. She’s hosted a number of high-profile events intended to criticize those who seek to alter the regulations and allow waivers.
“The last thing that we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health, especially when we’re finally starting to see some progress on this issue,” she said during a White House meeting recently. “Now is not the time to roll back everything that we have worked for. Our kids deserve so much better than that. They really do.”
Obama acknowledged that “this type of major transformation of our nation’s school lunch program hasn’t been easy. The truth is that when it came to the food being served in our schools, we had our work cut out for us. Our school lunch program costs taxpayers more than $10 billion a year. And before these new standards, a lot of that money was spent on meals that had more than the recommended amounts of salt, sugar and fat—meals that weren’t meeting basic nutrition guidelines.
“But today, thanks to the hard work of school chefs, food service workers across the country, 90 percent of schools are now meeting modern nutrition standards,” she added.
Some members of the School Nutrition Association, including some of the “lunch ladies” who are trying to serve up healthier meals every school day, beg to differ. They have asked Congress to provide more flexibility for implementation.
Patty Montague, CEO of the School Nutrition Association, says her members are “really dedicated to feeding kids across this country as they have for more than 70 years now. We believe in healthy food and we support the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. But the regulations are making it very, very difficult for many of them to implement.
“We are looking for some relief and some flexibility, so that we can get numbers of participation back up to where it used to be and help grow it so kids are eating these healthy meals in school,” Montague added.
“We are not about gutting the program,” she emphasized.
Nationwide, student participation in the National School Lunch Program declined by 1.2 million students from school year 2010-2011 through school year 2012-2013, after having increased steadily for many years,” noted the Government Accountability Office in a report earlier this year.
State and local officials reported that the changes to lunch content and nutrition requirements, as well as other factors, influenced student participation, according to GAO.
Precursor to a larger food fight?
Interviews with a number of food industry insiders—well as lawmakers and lobbyists—indicate that the waiver included in the appropriations bill might only be the beginning of a larger discussion on child nutrition and ultimately, a much larger food fight.
Indeed, the child nutrition law requiring the school lunch rules –the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010—is up for reauthorization in 2015. The Senate Agriculture Committee, chaired by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, recently held its first hearing on the bill.
Oversight of HHFKA in the House is in the authority of the Education and the Workforce Committee. That body’s ranking member, George Miller, D-CA, is a perennial supporter of stricter school lunch guidelines. He’s also retiring at the end of the year.
Opponents of the waiver say other attempts may follow to weaken guidelines authorized by the child nutrition legislation, including rules for the Smart Snacks in Schools program (which regulates “competitive foods” sold in school vending machines, a la carte and in school stores and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, among others).
On the other side of the issue, SNA says it will probably continue the effort it started with the appropriations waiver push. The organization, which represents 55,000 school nutrition professionals, hopes to provide schools with more flexibility in dealing with government nutrition guidelines. In the group’s 2014 policy paper—which it says grows organically out of consultations with its membership—SNA advocates for a reduction in the required whole-grain rich requirements, abatement in sodium reductions until the issue has been studied more thoroughly, and the removal of the requirement that all students select a half a cup serving of a fruit or vegetable as part of reimbursable breakfast or lunch program.
“There’s a good chance that those [policy points not resolved in appropriations] will move to the next paper (for 2015),” said Cathy Schuchart, vice president of SNA’s Child Nutrition and Policy Center.
The sodium issue, particularly, will be one to watch. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a policy document overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services but supported by U.S. Department of Agriculture, will be updated in 2015—and those updates could include game-changing recommendations on sodium. That revision could change the guidelines coming out of HHFKA, said policy analyst Roger Szemraj, a principal at OFW Law.
Another issue to watch: potatoes. Both the House and Senate Appropriations marks would allow WIC participants to purchase white potatoes, which some health advocates say allow beneficiaries to dodge better-for-you vegetables, like leafy greens. The child nutrition reauthorization could change that rule permanently.
Editor’s note: Agri-Pulse Editor Sara Wyant can be reached at www.agri-pulse.com.