Renewed school food fight looming on the horizon

by Jay Sjerven
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The School Nutrition Association has asked Congress to modify menu mandates in child nutrition reauthorization bill.

WASHINGTON — The School Nutrition Association on Jan. 29 issued its 2015 Position Paper around which it will organize its advocacy efforts as Congress begins the process of drafting legislation to reauthorize the nation’s child nutrition programs. The position paper indicated the S.N.A. will continue to urge Congress and the Obama administration to modify requirements relating to servings of fruits and vegetables and whole grain-rich foods as contained in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the current law authorizing child nutrition programs, which expires on Sept. 30, 2015.

“S.N.A. supports strong federal nutrition standards for school meals, including calorie caps and mandates to offer a greater quantity and variety of fruits and vegetables,” said Patricia Montague, S.N.A.’s president and chief executive officer. “However, some of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s regulations under the law have unnecessarily increased costs and waste for school meal programs and caused many students to swap healthy school meals for junk food fare. The S.N.A. is asking Congress to provide schools adequate funding and flexibility, allowing school nutrition professionals to plan creative, appealing menus that will entice students to eat healthy school meals.”

The S.N.A. asserted U.S.D.A. data show that since the new rules were implemented, 1.4 million fewer children choose school-prepared lunches each day. Declining student participation reduces meal program revenue for schools already stressed by higher food and labor costs under the new regulations, the S.N.A. said.

“U.S.D.A. estimates the new rules add $1.2 billion to the cost of preparing school meals in fiscal year 2015 alone,” the S.N.A. said. “As a result, only half of school meal program operators anticipate their programs will break even at the end of this school year, according to a recent S.N.A. survey.”

The S.N.A. said schools also have struggled with availability of foods that meet the new standards and student acceptance of new menus. As an example, the S.N.A. pointed to a Cornell and Brigham Young University study indicating the new mandate requiring students to take a fruit or vegetable with every meal, even if they don’t intend to eat it, has increased waste by 100%, with an estimated $684 million of fruits and vegetables wasted each school year.

Similarly, the S.N.A. called for the restoration of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’s initial requirement that at least half of grains offered through school lunch and breakfast programs be whole grain-rich, which would rescind the act’s 2014 mandate that all grains must be whole grain-rich. The 2014 mandate has increased waste and contributed to a decline in student lunch participation, the S.N.A. said.

“Students are eating more whole grain breads and buns, but schools are struggling to find acceptable specialty whole grain items,” the S.N.A. said. “Challenges include limited availability of whole grain-rich foods in rural areas, higher costs and regional preferences for certain refined grains such as bagels or biscuits… Restoring the requirement that half of all grains offered be whole grain-rich will ensure students continue to receive a variety of whole grain choices in school, while limiting waste.”

The S.N.A. also urged Congress not to proceed with implementation of limits on sodium content in school meals more restrictive than those already in place.

Other S.N.A. “asks” for the 2015 child nutrition reauthorization included a 35c increase in per meal reimbursement to ensure school food authorities may afford to meet federal requirements; allowing all food items permitted to be served as part of a reimbursable meal to be sold at any time as an a la carte item, and program simplification.

The produce industry took issue with the S.N.A. stance on levels of servings of fruits and vegetables in school meals.

“While we agree with many recommendations in the S.N.A.’s 2015 Position Paper, we are deeply disappointed that S.N.A. has chosen to continue its ill-advised fight against serving kids more fruits and vegetables in schools,” said Tom Stenzel, president and c.e.o., United Fresh Produce Association.

“The requirement that kids receive one-half cup of fruits or vegetables in school meals is being successfully met by tens of thousands of schools across the country,” Mr. Stenzel said. “This is a modest step for the health of our children, especially in these critical learning years. When health classes teach students to make half their plate consist of fruits and vegetables, it would be unconscionable for the school cafeteria to undercut that message by not serving at least one-half cup in school meals.”

The Obama administration seemed intent on carrying forward the school meal requirements and targets established by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in presenting the U.S.D.A.’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2016 on Feb. 2 repeated earlier assertions that more than 90% of schools already report they are successfully meeting the updated nutrition standards.

The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and the House Committee on Education and the Workforce will take the lead in drafting the reauthorization legislation.

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