Too many cooks in the school kitchen?

by Jay Sjerven
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A battle over the implementation of the school meal nutrition standards mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 erupted in Washington during the past couple of weeks. On the one side, the White House and congressional champions of the nutrition standards asserted the rules must be upheld. They pointed to the willingness of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assist school districts encountering difficulties in implementing the standards, providing program flexibility when warranted. And on the other side, congressional critics of the standards, or at least of how they were being implemented, asserted financially strapped school districts that need more time to adjust to the new standards should be granted waivers for the 2014-15 school year.

The first salvoes in what was expected to be a protracted battle were fired in congressional appropriations committees that were marking up fiscal 2015 agriculture appropriations bills.

The House Committee on Appropriation’s Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies, on May 20 passed by voice vote its fiscal 2015 agriculture appropriations bill, which included language that would provide schools an opportunity to apply for waivers if they experience financial difficulty meeting the nutrition standards.

“While my colleagues and I are concerned about the national problems brought on by childhood obesity, I also want to be sensitive to the challenges of local school districts,” said Representative Robert Aderholt of Alabama, chairman of the agriculture subcommittee.

“I continually hear from my schools in Alabama about the challenges and costs they are facing and their desperation for flexibility and relief so that they can operate a program serving healthy foods the kids will eat,” Mr. Aderholt said. “I would bet many of you are hearing similar concerns from your schools as well. And if you are not, then this waiver process will have no impact on how your schools are operating.  If your schools are successful in implementing the nutrition standards and operating in the black, they would not qualify for or need a waiver.  But for schools suffering economic hardship and needing more time to implement and adjust to the new standards, this waiver gives them that flexibility schools are asking us to provide.”

Democrats on the subcommittee viewed the waiver proposal as an attempt to begin rolling back the nutrition standards.

Representative Sam Farr of California, ranking member on the subcommittee, said under the proposal, schools could “opt” out of implementing the nutrition standards even while continuing to receive federal funds that were appropriated to assist them to do so.

“We don’t allow kids to opt out of math or opt out of science because it’s tough,” Mr. Farr said.

Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, who was chairwoman of the subcommittee when the Democrats controlled the House, said, “Why would Congress, already maligned for labeling pizza a vegetable, now seek to weaken federal child nutrition programs, and through the appropriations process no less, other than to appease the industry? Over 90% of our schools have complied (with the standards). The U.S.D.A., which provides technical assistance, has repeatedly said they will work with schools having difficulties to make sure they can comply.”

First Lady Michelle Obama entered the fray when she convened a meeting of school leaders and nutrition standards advocates at the White House on May 27. Ms. Obama said despite successes registered in implementing the new school meal nutrition standards, “we’re now seeing efforts in Congress to roll back these new standards and undo the hard work that all of you, all of us have done on behalf of our kids.  And this is unacceptable.”

Ms. Obama acknowledged transforming the health of an entire generation is no small task.

“But we have to be willing to fight the hard fight now,” she affirmed. “In 10 or 20 years, I don’t want to look back with regret and think that we gave up on our kids because we felt like this thing was too hard, or too expensive.”

The new school meal standards also were a subject of debate in the Senate, where the Committee on Appropriations passed its fiscal 2015 agriculture appropriations bill on May 22. Waiver proponents there failed to gain sufficient traction to carry the day, but the committee did call for certain flexibilities.

The Senate agriculture appropriations bill, S. 2389, included a provision that said the U.S.D.A. must not require further reductions in the quantity of sodium in federally reimbursed meals until “scientific research supports the reduction for children.”

Additionally, the bill directed the U.S.D.A. to report to Congress within 180 days on “whether there is an acceptable range of whole grain products currently available to allow schools to plan menus that are compliant with the whole grain requirements in effect as of July 1, 2014.”

If the U.S.D.A. determines a whole grain product to be of insufficient quantity or unacceptable quality, it was directed to “identify alternative products that would be considered to meet the requirements until such time as the secretary determines that whole grain products are of sufficient quantity and quality.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack during a May 28 conference call said that the Senate’s directives were in accord with the U.S.D.A.’s willingness to provide flexibilities in implementation when warranted. But Mr. Vilsack said the U.S.D.A. was opposed to granting waivers from standards implementation not only because it would be a setback to the efforts to improve student nutrition but also because the waiver process itself would be unworkable. He said it was neither reasonable nor possible for the U.S.D.A. to determine whether a school district’s financial distress was attributable to its efforts to meet the nutrition standards.

The School Nutrition Association, which represents 55,000 school nutrition administrators, favored and lobbied for waivers as approved in the House bill.

“S.N.A. does not want to gut the nutrition standards — we support many of the requirements,” said Leah Schmidt, president of the S.N.A. “Our request for flexibility under the new standards does not come from industry or politics. It comes from thousands of school cafeteria professionals who have shown how these overly prescriptive regulations are hindering their effort to get students to eat healthy school meals.”

At the same time, 19 former presidents of the S.N.A. on May 27 wrote members of the appropriations committees, stating, “We urge you to reject calls for waivers, maintain strong standards for all schools, and direct the U.S.D.A. to continue working with school leaders and state directors to find ways, including technical assistance, that will ensure all schools can meet the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act standards. Specific concerns regarding whole grains and sodium can be addressed as technical corrections. We must not reverse the progress that was sought by school leaders and is well on its way to success in most schools.”
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