Congress' Attempt to Weaken School Nutrition Programs

The fight for healthy school food continues.

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The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture just rolled back major steps toward a healthier school lunch. On May 20, during the subcommittee’s markup of the 2015 Agricultural Appropriations Bill, Subcommittee Chair Robert Aderholt revealed a provision that would allow schools to opt out of meeting the U.S. Department of Agriculture's school food requirements and still receive federal reimbursement for meals that fall below federal nutritional standards.

This is a travesty that puts the health of our children and their children at stake. We all need to push back on this and make the health of our children our primary goal, not the health of big business or even the bottom line of school food service operations.

Congressman Sam Farr, the ranking member of the subcommittee, protested the provision, citing concern that school districts would continue to receive federal funds to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables but not be required to buy them. He recognized that meeting the requirements can be challenging, but he said, “We don’t allow kids to opt out of math or opt out of science because it’s tough. Changing the American diet is fundamental to bringing down health care costs.”

[Read: Why Kids Are Eating Fewer School Meals and Wasting More.]

The waiver can largely be attributed to the lobbying efforts of the School Nutrition Association, a national organization that represents both school nutrition professionals and companies that produce food items sold in schools. In April, SNA President Leah Schmidt joined Congressman Aderholt in his home state of Alabama for a School Meal Forum.

“School nutrition professionals appreciate the support of Congressman Aderholt and we look forward to working together in the future to continue to prioritize the long-term viability and strength of school meal programs in providing healthy, appealing options for students,” Schmidt said during the event. 

The waiver is outlined in Section 739 of the bill and states that if a school food authority can verify a net loss over a six month period or more starting from July 1, 2013, then they will qualify for a waiver from complying with USDA’s school food standards. The waiver is something that SNA lobbied for earlier in the year, and Congress mandated that the USDA provide it. The USDA recently responded that they didn’t have the legal right to do so, so the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture used their authority to issue one. 

[Read: Is the Fox Guarding the Hen House? Big Business in School Food.]

As Marion Nestle succinctly puts it in her recent post on Food Politics, “As I see it, the food industry couldn’t get its way through the usual rulemaking processes, so it did an end run and got Congress to overturn the work of no less than three committees of the Institute of Medicine.” 

Other groups are extremely (and appropriately) disturbed at the use of the appropriations process to make changes to regulations created by scientific experts. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) circulated a statement from Senator Tom Harkin for signatures of support. Harkin states, “For decades, Congress has wisely ensured that federal child nutrition programs have been guided by science. Science-based decisions have served our children and our nation well. Accordingly, we strongly urge you to oppose efforts to intervene in science-based rules regarding the federal child nutrition programs.” 

Even Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, a member of the subcommittee, threw doubt on the process when protesting the waiver at the markup, “Why would the Congress, already maligned for labeling pizza as a vegetable, now seek to weaken the federal child nutrition programs and through the appropriations process, no less?” 

After the bill was released, SNA issued a statement requesting additional language in the bill to further relax USDA’s nutrition standards, the most notable of which is a request that schools no longer require children to take a serving of fruit or vegetable as part of their school meal. They state, “Some of USDA’s regulations go too far, actually pushing students away from healthy school meals and threatening the financial viability of school meal programs.”

[Read: Why Is Everyone Giving My Kid Junk Food?]  

Chairman of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee Hal Rogers spoke to this issue at the markup, saying, “The problem is, kids are saying ‘I don’t want it,’ and they go someplace else to get their food. You are actually doing the kids a disservice because you are trying to force them to eat things they will not eat … They’re going outside and getting food and its more non-nutritional.”

Here’s the thing. School food isn’t in competition with fast-food restaurants and the junk food aisle at the corner grocery store. It’s ridiculous to suggest we lower our standards in an effort to ensure students buy poor quality food from schools instead of neighborhood businesses. Our goal is to provide healthy, filling and tasty meals that nourish children and convince students they should eat them. 

Yes, left to their own devices, many children and teenagers will choose hot dogs and chips and pizza for every meal, but school should be the place where they learn that is a very bad idea. We need to hold the line, even if it’s difficult and even if some school districts are struggling. Over 90 percent of school districts are in compliance with the new standards. We need to help the other 10 percent meet the standards, not tell them to forget about it. 

The SNA has some very legitimate concerns: The financial impact of decreased student participation in school meal programs; the amount of food wasted by children who refuse to eat the fruit or vegetable they must have on their tray; and the difficulty of finding palatable pasta and tortillas when the 100 percent whole grain requirement takes effect next year. Many of their school food service members, who are part of the 90 percent that is in compliance, are still struggling to stay that way and be financially viable. Some are fearful for their jobs. They are already struggling with decreased income from fewer students buying lunch, and they will have to deal with another decrease in revenue when restrictions regarding a la carte items go into effect. 

Recently, one of my team members spoke with Leah Schmidt and Julia Bauscher, SNA’s president and president-elect, respectively, along with Diane Pratt-Heavner, their director of media relations. Bauscher stated that they are lobbying Congress because time is critical and their members need solutions now.

[Read: The Sea Change in School Food.]

I agree that all of these are very real concerns, but the solution is to work with the USDA to find ways to offer support and technical assistance to schools that need it, not to relax guidelines. On the same day as the bill markup, and in direct response to concerns addressed about whole grain pasta, the USDA released a statement that schools can serve traditionally-fortified pasta for the next two years. 

Working with the USDA will take more time, but shortcuts will erode the infrastructure of a healthier school food system. Determining whether or not some of the guidelines should be relaxed, waived or postponed should be the purview of the scientific experts at the USDA and the Institute of Medicine, not politicians.

The appropriations bill was approved with the waiver language and will go before the full Appropriations Committee, where it can be further amended. I urge you to sign a petition circulated by the Center for Science in the Public Interest asking Congress not to weaken school food nutrition standards. The fight for healthy school food didn’t end with the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. That’s when it really began.