Senate hearing debates school nutrition standards
by Jay Sjerven
|Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan (left) and Julia Bauscher, president of the School Nutrition Association, debated the issue of new school nutrition standards during a July 23 senate hearing.
WASHINGTON — With the 2014-15 public school year set to begin within weeks, members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry on July 23 heard both sides of the debate on whether to continue to push forward with the new school nutrition standards established under the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 or slow implementation or even provide waivers from the standards for school districts having difficulty meeting the requirements. The committee was meeting to discuss reauthorization of the nation’s child nutrition programs.
Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, chairwoman of the agriculture committee, framed the discussion affirming one of three American children is either overweight or obese. Senator Stabenow said one out of every five health care dollars is spent treating obesity-related illnesses each year. She referred to the first committee hearing on this issue where retired military leaders pointed out 75% of America’s youth cannot qualify for military services with obesity being a major reason why.
“So if we can turn a corner in this country by offering healthy food choices in schools, and by teaching healthy eating habits, we will not only improve the health of our children, but our country’s longer term economic and national security as well,” Ms. Stabenow said.
Ms. Stabenow acknowledged changing children’s eating habits may not be an easy task, “but the goal of reducing childhood hunger and obesity is too important to reverse course now. Instead, we are looking forward.”
A contrary view was provided by Senator Mike Johanns of Nebraska, former U.S. secretary of agriculture, who said, “When I visit schools and I open up to questions, one of the common criticisms I hear from kids relates to the school lunch program. It may be about choices, it may be about food they don’t want to eat, it may be about they’re not getting enough to eat. It seems to me that whatever we do with all of our good intentions, if we can’t sell it to kids, we’re fooling ourselves, because it will go on their plate, then to the trash bin.
“I worry that we’ve thrown so much at schools that we are going to get to a point where participation goes down, schools will back away from the program, and kids will back away from the program.”
Julia Bauscher, newly elected 2014-15 president of the School Nutrition Association and director of school and community nutrition services, Jefferson County Public Schools, Louisville, Ky., expressed the concerns school nutrition professionals have about the “historic decline in school lunch participation under the regulatory requirements of the new law.”
|Ms. Bauscher has increased the amount of fresh and local produce offered in Jefferson County Public Schools, Louisville, Ky., where she serves as director of school and community nutrition services.
Ms. Bauscher asserted under the new nutrition standards, student participation dropped in 49 states, and 1 million fewer students choose school lunch every day.
“This participation challenge thwarts our shared goal of promoting healthier diets for all students,” she said.
Ms. Bauscher observed there has been a 15% decline in the paid meal category nationwide.
“If this trend continues, the school cafeteria will no longer be a place where all students dine and learn healthy habits together, but rather a place where poor students must go to get their free meals,” she said.
Ms. Bauscher pointed to difficulties encountered by school districts in accessing the foods required under the new nutrition standards, the rising costs of such foods, poor student acceptance of many food offerings and the resulting increase in food waste. She said the problems nutrition professionals struggle with regard to managing costs and waste rapidly are becoming financial problems for the school districts, which must cover deficits school nutrition programs may incur.
“As the 2014-15 school year begins, school meal programs and districts alike will face additional challenges as they work together to meet the new Smart Snacks in Schools rules on foods sold in vending machines, school stores and al la carte lines,” Ms. Bauscher continued. “While many of these requirements bring welcome changes to our schools, many meal programs have been forced to strip healthy entree options from their al la carte menus because of the strict sodium limits under Smart Snacks.”
Betti Wiggins, executive director, Detroit Public Schools Office of School Nutrition, acknowledged there may be problems encountered in efforts to meet the new school nutrition programs, but they are manageable.
“Institutional change is always difficult and often seems near impossible,” she said. “It always takes time and includes short-term discomfort. The investments prompted by improved school nutrition standards have and will continue to generate invaluable returns. Any short-term pains pale in comparison to the benefits from reform that is both highly desirable and attainable. Change worth making takes time.
“Nine out of 10 school districts across the country are already in compliance with the new standards. We are making it work and work well in Detroit. I am fully confident that all other districts will do the same.”