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Regulators and Processors Locked In Lunchroom Food Fight

The school lunch program needs government renewal; should it get tougher or more lax nutritional standards?

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

kid healthy foodOne of the battles brewing in Washington these days is a debate over reauthorization of the National School Lunch Program. The current incarnation, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), which will expire on Sept. 30, attempted to force healthier school-supplied breakfasts and lunches and to combat childhood obesity. But school districts are finding the rules difficult to enact and students are finding the resulting meals unappetizing.

With childhood obesity a hot topic at the time, HHFKA was passed in December 2010 with bipartisan support. Then, no one wanted to be seen as blocking a solution to this national crisis. Who can argue against more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and fewer calories? But as goals and targets became mandates and intentions became implementation, two warring camps formed.

On one side is the Obama administration, led by Michelle Obama, who made reversing childhood obesity her First Lady mission. Alongside her are USDA, policy advisors on nutrition and health and even the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which has written a prescript to make all Americans eat a little healthier – if indeed what they've suggested is written into law by the end of this year.

On the other side are many, but not all, food processors that have come to supply the school breakfast and lunch programs, often with off-the-shelf products they make for retail or general foodservice – which don't meet the tougher school guidelines.

Also on that side are the "lunch ladies" themselves: the School Nutrition Association, which represents the 55,000 employees nationally who prepare school breakfasts and lunches each day. They must balance nutrition with palatability (for a particularly picky age group) and budgets with the frenzy of feeding hundreds of children in sometimes multiple-25-minute windows. Add in lobbying groups for fresh produce or milk. Plus many, especially Republicans, who see any legislation of peoples' behaviors as nanny-state governance.

Two portions of the law are drawing the most criticism, especially among food processors:

  • Sodium limits were set last summer for enactment in the 2014-2015 school year (different maximums were set for different grade groups), but those limits are to be aggressively increased in 2017 and again in 2022. In one example, the sodium limit for high school students is set at 1,400mg currently, but will be 740mg in 2022.
  • Half of grain products were required to be "whole grain-rich" for lunch programs beginning in 2012 and for breakfasts, too, in 2013. But beginning with this past school year, all grains had to be whole grain – which is causing some schools to give up on grain products altogether, rather than trying to find palatable pasta or pizza made with whole grains.

And one more tenet that probably pleases certain food processors and suppliers but is creating cost and waste for school districts is that every subsidized student, at both breakfast and lunch, must take ½ cup of fruit or vegetable with each meal.

Unintended consequences

The results of the first phase of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has been a 1.5 percent drop in students who pay for their own lunch (but a 0.4 percent growth in free lunches) – that's 1.4 million fewer children who are choosing lunch each day. School districts are being forced to absorb $1.2 billion in additional food and labor costs in 2015 alone. Cafeteria waste has increased 100 percent, to $684 million – most of that waste being the fruit or vegetable mandated with every meal. All those figures are according to SNA.

"Allow schools to prepare healthy meals students will eat" is the simple suggestion of the association. "SNA supports strong federal nutrition standards for school meals, including calorie limits and mandates to offer a greater quantity and variety of fruits and vegetables. However, some of USDA's regulations go too far, driving up costs and waste and causing many students to swap healthy school meals for less nutritious options."

While SNA certainly is the official representation of those 55,000 "lunch ladies," it doesn't speak for all of them. There have been success stories of school nutrition directors who see their creation of meals meeting the tougher requirements as a holy mission.

One of the key criticisms of SNA has been its closening ties with large food processors. The board of directors is chaired by the CEO of a foodservice equipment vendor, AccuTemp Products, and other members include foodservice executives from Schwan Co. and PepsiCo. Some pages of the group's website have ads from Kellogg, McKee Foods' Fieldstone Bakery and General Mills.

In fact, 19 past presidents of SNA last year signed a letter to Senate and House members on agriculture appropriations committees urging them not to approve waivers to HHFKA that their own association now supports. It said they believe, with USDA's help, "all schools can meet the HHFKA 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."

Schwan made this statement to us: "We're very proud of our 40-year history of making great-tasting, wholesome and nutritious schools for students," says a spokesman for Schwan. "We take this responsibility very seriously. All of our more than 100 items for school meet or exceed today's USDA school meal nutrition standards. We've been a leader in creating whole grain pizza crusts that students like. And our work in sodium reduction began nearly a decade ago. Schwan's Food Service has consistently supported the goals of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA). Our concerns relate to what's referenced as the Tier 2 and 3 sodium requirements. The company has been working hard to continue to reduce sodium in those foods where it can maintain or improve the quality of taste, but the levels being demanded for 2017 and 2022 are very difficult to achieve, if not impossible, resulting in foods that students simply won't eat. There is little scientific basis for lowering the sodium content of children's meals. Our starting point is always "do no harm" [but] we haven't seen the science to support these Tier 2 and Tier 3 requirements."

The key counter right now to HHFKA is the Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act (S.1146), which aims "to prohibit further reductions in sodium levels and to reinstate the [2012] grain-rich requirements applicable to the national school lunch and breakfast programs." That last part would reinstate the rule that half of all grain products must be whole-grain rich.

“Providing our students with healthy, nutritious and delicious meals is important,” said Senator John Hoeven (R-ND), one of the sponsors of the bill (the other is independent Maine Senator Angus King). “The Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act ensures our schools are providing kids with good, nutritious meals but provides the flexibility they need to serve meals that are not only well-balanced but also appealing to students.”

As might be expected, "The Salt Institute applauds [Hoeven and King] for introducing [S.1146]. This legislation is designed to help local schools provide healthy meals for school children free from further federal requirements regarding sodium and whole grains."

“Salads and vegetables are critical to a good diet but research from Ohio State University has shown that reducing salt makes vegetables less palatable and as a result kids reject them," said Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute. “The entire effort to reduce salt below what kids find acceptable is self-defeating. Kids simply refuse to eat the school lunches provided and instead end up eating far less-healthy snacks outside of school to make up for the lack of sodium in their diets.”

The International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation are applauding the School Milk Nutrition Act of 2015 "to help reverse the decline of milk consumption in schools." The bipartisan bill, introduced Reps. G.T. Thompson (R-PA) and Joe Courtney (D-CT), reaffirms the requirement that milk is offered with each school meal.

The bill would clarify some current murkiness over whether flavored milks with 1 percent milkfat can be included in school programs, and it would require that any beverages replacing milk (such as soy milk or almond milk) contain the same nutritional components as cow's milk.

NMPF notes that from 2012 to 2014, schools served 187 million fewer half-pints of milk, although total public school enrollment grew during that period.

One of the trade groups that has benefited from the tougher regulations and is pushing for the stricter limits is United Fresh Produce Association. Mandatory fruits and vegetables is a boon to its members. And in June, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) introduced the "Salad Bars in Schools Expansion Act." As the name implies, it would provide funding for more salad bars and more marketing of same.
Whatever makes up the final rules, the pressure is on Congress from all angles. What's more, the clock is ticking, as the new rules will have at least some effect on sourcing for the 2015-2016 school year, even though planning and contracting for the fall already has begun.