School Lunch Standards Cause Food Fight

Food very well could have been flying in this week’s appropriations debate regarding how the USDA should handle the nation’s school lunch programs

In 2010, the First Lady’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Act had wide bipartisan support and was seen as a way to transform the eating habits of children with more fruits and vegetables and whole-grains and less fat and sodium.

Four years later, that pathway has soured.  During the appropriations debates this week, members from both sides of the aisle tried to find a solution in annual agricultural spending bills in the House and Senate.

The House version included a waiver for schools who have had six months in the red due to implementation of the new standards. House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee chairman Robert Aderholt’s, R-Ala., said the inclusion isn’t because he’s bowing to industry, but he continues to hear from lunch ladies, regarding the need to provide flexibility.

Rep. Sam Farr, the subcommittee ranking member from California, argued that it was the “wrong move” to allow school districts to opt out of the program meant to encourage the eating of healthier foods and keep the money instead of serving fresh fruit and vegetables.

“We don’t allow students to opt out of math or science, so why are we allowing this,” Farr said, adding that changing the American diet is so fundamental to bring down health costs and essential to help start growing healthier people.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack held a press call Thursday in an effort to try to debunk what he saw as mistruths being circulated in the school lunch debate. Despite reports that a significant number of schools are dropping out, he said less than 2/10th of 1 percent has dropped out. And over 90% of schools report they are successfully meeting the updated nutrition standards.

Vilsack also shared that the new food standards have not increased food waste. A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health showed that new school meal standards did not result in increased food waste. (View a fact sheet USDA released this week with more details on the school lunch program implementation.)

Vilsack said the House’s wavier approach would be chaotic, difficult to administer and essentially gut the opportunities provided in the new law to encourage healthier eating. He said USDA appreciates the need to be flexible, and said it is clear more flexibility will need to be provided, such as on the upcoming sodium requirement.

The secretary said the agency continues to show flexibility in meeting the standards and doesn’t need Congress to step in and make an unwarranted legislative fix. Early in the implementation process for school meals, when schools asked for flexibility to serve larger servings of grains and proteins within the overall calorie caps, USDA responded. In January of this year, that flexibility was made permanent. USDA is also phasing other requirements in over the next several years, the agency said.

Just this week USDA provided additional flexibility with new whole-grain requirements. Beginning next school year, all grains and breads in school meal programs must be "whole grain-rich," meaning that they contain at least 50% whole grain meal and/or flour. USDA plans to gradually allow for implementation after school districts voiced their concerns about the scarcity of acceptable approved whole-grain-rich pasta products.

During the full Senate Appropriations Committee, Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and John Hoeven, R-N.D., offered a successful amendment to deal with main concerns in the school lunch programs, which Vilsack said USDA can support. 

The amendment gives the Secretary of Agriculture the flexibility to recognize that certain whole grain products aren’t available or sufficient in some schools and allow them to offer an alternative instead.  The amendment would also provide training and assistance to help schools address plate waste and participation rates.  

Hoeven’s secondary amendment that would provide schools with a hardship exemption if they could not meet the whole grain requirement was withdrawn after receiving a commitment from Appropriations agriculture subcommittee chairman Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Harkin to address this issue via report language. (Hear audio from the Senate mark up.)

United Fresh President and CEO Tom Stenzel shared that now that a “sensible, bipartisan solution has prevailed in the Senate,” he encouraged all players to step back from the debate and come together to better help schools meet the simple fruit and vegetable standards of at least one half-cup of fruits and vegetables at every meal.

We ask the full House Appropriations Committee, on a bipartisan basis, to strike the blanket variances allowing schools to opt out of all nutrition standards which was passed this week by the Agriculture Subcommittee,” Stenzel said in a statement. “Let’s put this debate behind us, and get on with accomplishing our goal of helping kids learn to make healthy choices for a lifetime.”

Flexibility is clearly needed, but how to strike the right balance will be important as the debate moves forward.

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