School nutrition debate continues to rage

by Jay Sjerven
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The School Nutrition Association requests an ‘urgent’ meeting and seeks more flexibility in nutrition standards.

The School Nutrition Association in a June 19 letter requested an “urgent” face-to-face meeting with First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to discuss “the challenges our members face as they continue to work diligently, and in good faith, to implement the regulatory requirements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.” The S.N.A., which represents 55,000 school nutrition professionals, asserted “too many individual school district operations continue to struggle with the increased costs, decreased revenues, increased waste and declining participation directly associated with implementation of the nutrition standards.”

The S.N.A. in earlier days was a staunch proponent of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and the new nutrition standards for school meals. But in recent months, the association has become increasingly critical of how the standards were being implemented and of some of the standards themselves. Relations between the S.N.A. and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and First Lady Michelle Obama, who strongly champions the standards, further chilled when the S.N.A. supported the House fiscal year 2015 agriculture appropriations bill that would allow school meal programs operating at a net loss for six months or more to apply for a one-year waiver from the standards.

The S.N.A. in its June 19 letter stated, “Unfortunately, in spite of the best intentions and efforts, too many individual school district operations continue to struggle with the increased costs, decreased revenues, increased waste and declining participation directly associated with implementation of the nutrition standards. And while it is true that 90% of school meal programs have met the 2012 requirements, it is simply inaccurate to say that implementation has been successful, or that schools are prepared to meet the standards that take effect on July 1.”

The S.N.A. asserted student participation in the National School Lunch Program has fallen “precipitously” in 49 states and that more than 1 million fewer students choose school lunch each day than before the standards took effect.

“These losses reduce revenue for school meal programs already struggling with higher costs,” the letter continued. “As leaders of S.N.A., we have heard from program operators all across the country who no longer have adequate net revenue to reinvest in their programs and purchase needed equipment, or who must rely on their school districts to cover year-end losses, often by taking money from education programs.

“Mrs. Obama and Secretary Vilsack, we want there to be no doubt. S.N.A. and its members support the majority of the new nutrition standards for school meals. But to meet the goals that we share with you for America’s children, we are seeking some common sense flexibility in the rules in order to help students adjust to healthy changes in their school cafeterias, to increase the number of children who benefit from healthy school meals, and to keep our programs financially stable.”

The S.N.A. said it appreciated the efforts the U.S.D.A. has made in providing some recent flexibilities in implementing the standards, but “we are concerned that the pace of these changes is insufficient to address the continued slide in participation.”

In addition to supporting a waiver from the nutrition standards for struggling school lunch programs, the S.N.A. letter requested the U.S.D.A. or Congress to: “retain the current requirement that 50% of grains offered with school meals be whole grain rich, rather than further increasing the requirement to 100%; retain Target 1 sodium levels and suspend implementation of further sodium levels unless and until scientific research supports such reductions for school children; retain requirements to offer wide varieties of fruits and vegetables, but eliminate the mandate that students must take a fruit or vegetable with meals, and allow any food item permitted to be served as part of a reimbursable meal to be sold at any time as a competitive food.”

It was uncertain whether the requested face-to-face meeting between the S.N.A. leadership and Mrs. Obama and Mr. Vilsack will take place.

Meanwhile, proponents of the standards remained outspoken, including 19 former presidents of the S.N.A. who unsuccessfully urged House appropriators to reject waivers from the regulations.

The U.S.D.A. on June 18 published several statements supporting the standards from medical and education associations, and even retired senior military officers.

Members of Mission Readiness, an organization of more than 450 retired generals and admirals, have been strong supporters of the nutrition standards. Retired Major General Tracy Strevey Jr., M.D., former commander of the U.S. Army Health Services Command, in a recent op-ed said, “We are at an important juncture. Schools are capable of serving healthier foods, and the vast majority is already doing so. Congress should resist efforts to derail continued implementation of science-based nutrition guidelines for school meals and snacks. Together, we can make sure that America’s obesity crisis does not become a national security crisis.”

Ardis Dee Hoven, president of the American Medical Association, said, “Congress should not undermine the Institute of Medicine’s science-based standards that were developed to ensure kids are eating healthy food while in school. Schools should be safe zones where kids learn healthy habits based on the best available science, and not undermined by politics or corporate influence.”

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said, “The N.E.A. strongly supports the school meal nutrition standards in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. These commonsense requirements are essential to ensuring all children a healthy and successful start in life, particularly those whose families cannot afford to provide fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods at home on a regular basis. The benefits and cost-savings to our children and our nation in the long run will be significant.”
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