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The Fight Over School Lunch Mandates Is Going Nowhere

In Washington D.C., the issue of school lunch programs and the drastic reforms to them have become entrenched in a political quagmire as thick as slop. While fat politicians bicker, kids are left in the middle of the argument. Who wants a Sloppy Joe?
June 27, 2014, 12:00pm
Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr

For those possessed with the virtue of cognition, kids' nutrition is perhaps one of the most ostensibly benign, bipartisan issues you could ever chew over. School lunch food is definitely not as bad as it could be, though the argument to make it healthier seems sort of unassailable. Be that as it may, it comes as no surprise that in the Capitol, the issue of school lunch programs, and some pretty drastic reforms to them, has become entrenched in a political quagmire as thick as slop.


Four years ago, in an effort to address growing concern over childhood health and obesity (and to inject some basic nutrition standards into school lunch programs nationwide) Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) with a fairly decent margin of bipartisan votes. The HHFKA, a big part of the "Let's Move!" campaign, was a big-ticket issue for the Obama Administration, and the First Lady in particular. Naturally, nutrition outfits like science groups and the School Nutrition Association (SNA), the de-facto organization for national school nutrition workers, were on board too.

The Act mandated that school meals include more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and less salt and fat. In other words, it tangibly reinforced some pretty classic apple-a-day notions of proper nutrition in exchange for more federal money to help pay for it. These regulations were intended to effect free or reduced-fare lunch programs, of which approximately 31 million kids partake each year. But in July, tightened restrictions on things like sodium and whole grains are set to drop, putting some vested interest groups in a tizzy.

The road to Capitol Hill began when the SNA, an original proponent of the HHFKA and a close friend to the White House in pushing kids to eat healthier, switched teams. The unexpected move came after House Republicans, eager to answer their calls for help, penned a provision of an agriculture appropriations bill that incorporated one of the SNA's requests.


Much to the chagrin staunch health advocates, the House Appropriations Committee voted in May to allow school districts to temporarily opt out of the new dietary requirements via waiver if they could prove that their lunch programs operated at a net loss over a six-month period. Headed by Alabama Republican Robert Aderholt, the lawmakers' attempts to use the appropriations process to alter the rules of the HHFKA prompted confusion and anger among the act's advocates.

"Why are we even having this conversation?" wondered a baffled Michelle Obama at a roundtable discussion covered by Politico. "Help me understand why, especially given the fact that the School Nutrition Association worked to pass the original changes in the nutrition standards," she added.

One of the great things about school lunch is that, as a kid, you can exercise the small amount of autonomy you possess.

Even former presidents of the SNA—19 of them—had trouble understanding the sudden shift, and wrote to Agriculture Appropriations committee members urging them to maintain strong standards.

Others are even more concerned with the place Big Food corporations are getting at the deliberating table. Included on the SNA's client list are big hitters like PepsiCo, Domino's, and everyone's favorite, Muffin Town. "The SNA has said that at least half of its funding comes from school food manufacturers, and they have a real say in what [their] policies are," said Margo Wootan, Director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.


Unlike lunch ladies, even snacks seem to be getting special treatment. It's important to point out, Wootan noted, that the SNA's legislative agenda was revealed at their industry gathering, not at a meeting of service members. "What SNA has put forward as their top policy priorities are permanently rolling back the [new] standards for whole grain, sodium, fruits and vegetables, and a la carte food from the cafeteria—the snacks," she continued.

For its part, the SNA complains that the new restrictions—including all-whole-grains requirements, tighter sodium restrictions, and the requirement that students take a fruit or vegetable as part of their meal—are over the top.

Whatever's going on behind closed doors seems nothing short of dubious. With Big Food, when is that not the case? But the SNA shouldn't be totally discounted. Be it by convenience, coincidence, or altruism, the group is vocalizing what for some school districts are very real concerns. Schools are ill-equipped and short on cash to implement an expensive new program, from which students are opting out.

"Schools are seeking a little flexibility," said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the SNA. She says that, because of strict rules on what students are being made to settle with for lunch, some have opted out of the program altogether. "Since [the regulations] took effect, we've seen over one million fewer students choosing school lunch each day, and that's diminishing the intent of the law to get more kids eating healthy school meals."


One of the great things about school lunch is that, as a kid, you can exercise the small amount of autonomy you possess. New regulations can then seem threatening. "Kids don't want to be told what to put on their tray; they really embrace choices," Pratt-Heavner said.

And droves of trodden-upon kids are apparently driving this point home. The SNA reported that the new mandate requiring students to take a fruit or vegetable resulted in a nearly 100 percent increase in plate waste. "At a time when schools are having to spend a lot more to prepare the meals […] that level of waste is no longer affordable for meal programs. We don't want to force kids to take food they don't plan to eat," said Pratt-Heavner.

"While we certainly agree that schools need more funding to provide these meals, it's also been made very clear that that money's not available," she said.

While fat politicians bicker, kids are left between two, albeit relatively healthy poles of nutrition standards at lunchtime.

On the other side, opponents chalk up the SNA's talk of ill-equipped schools as being too sweeping. A recent USDA fact sheet reported that HHFKA's measures are actually working. Over 90 percent of schools are successfully meeting the updated standards, and kids are eating 16 percent more veggies and 23 percent more fruit. In the face of all that, healthier food standards haven't increased food waste, and school revenue is up, not down.


Both sides present paper evidence that tend to lend credence to either side of the given issue. But on the ground, some districts are feeling a squeeze trying to keep pace.

"When we got down to the nitty-gritty of the rules, we thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is not at all what we had been expecting,'" said Gitta Grether-Sweeney, Director of Child Nutrition for Portland Public School in Oregon. "Can we do it?" she said. "Yeah. Do we know how to do it? Yeah, but there is also a cost associated with it that we've been dealing with."

But health advocates' opinions remain at the bottom line. "The collective efforts by the USDA, by Congress, by food service should be to help schools serve healthy food to kids, not to grant waivers that mean some kids are going to get junk food in school," said Wootan.

While the issues associated with rolling out strict, expensive standards that don't always work for everyone are no doubt legitimate, opponents of loosening restrictions for some schools say it wasn't going to be easy to begin with. "Of all the people we should be aiming to get off on the right foot, it's kids in schools," said Karen Stillerman, Deputy Director and Senior Analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "One of the arguments is that kids don't like it, which we find a little bit ridiculous because kids don't like a lot of things, but that doesn't mean we stop doing what's right for them," she added.

The debate over what to feed our kids is a growing one, and is obviously nuanced, but racked by many of the same problems: funding, participation, and powerful third parties with political economic stakes. But the base issue remains the same. "We know that the things that children learn to eat when they're children has a big role in defining what they're going to eat their whole lives," continued Stillerman.

How this debate will play out is anyone's guess. The nutrition program that impacts the school lunch system will be up for reauthorization in 2015, and some have speculated that the current debate foreshadows a coming one imbedded with more profound alterations to the relationship between schools, food, and profits.

At the heart of it right now, though, there are two sides digging their heels deeper and deeper into the ground. While fat politicians bicker, kids are left between two, albeit relatively healthy poles of nutrition standards at lunchtime. And while the going may be tough, it's probably worth it in the end to hunker down and figure out how to meet new regulations head on. Stillerman thinks that "looking for those kinds of solutions is the right answer and not throwing up our hands and saying we have no choice but to feed the kids pizza." Either way, the debate needs to get off of the damn Hill.