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State of the Tray: Will Recent Improvements in School Food be Rolled Back?

Editor’s note: Have you had a hard time keeping up with all changes on the school lunch front these last few years? If so, you’re not alone. We asked Lunch Tray blogger Bettina Elias Siegel to give us an update on the state of the tray.

In late 2010, Congress voted to overhaul school meals. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (“HHFKA”) was championed by First Lady Michelle Obama and generally lauded by public health experts, anti-hunger groups, and food policy advocates as landmark legislation that would get America’s kids on the right track. By adding more whole grains, more fruits and vegetables, and simultaneously lowering sodium and capping overall calories on school lunch trays, the law promised much-needed change.

Add to that a new set of “Smart Snacks in School” rules which, starting this fall, will improve the nutritional quality of snacks and drinks in school vending machines and snack bars, and we could have the healthiest school food landscape we’ve seen for a long time. Or, as Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), puts it, “There has been more improvement in school meals over the last two years than in the previous decade.”

But even as the changes mandated by the HHFKA are becoming the norm in cafeterias around the country, with a reported 86 percent of schools now in compliance with the new rules, there is more change ahead. The next reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act (commonly referred to as the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, or CNR) is slated for consideration by Congress in 2015. That’s the general pool of money that has been funding school food since 1966.

The reauthorization presents a prime opportunity to modify the HHFKA’s requirements, and a variety of factions–from conservative Republicans, to school food professionals, to the food industry-backed School Nutrition Association (SNA)–are gearing up for that debate. And while it is not uncommon for a new law, particularly one as complex and far-reaching as the HHFKA, to get tweaked after passage, some of the proposed changes could mean a significant step backward for student health.

More Protein and Grains

Even in advance of the 2015 CNR, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the agency that oversees child nutrition programs, has already made one significant change to the new meal patterns by lifting caps previously imposed on weekly serving sizes of grains and protein. When these caps were first waived on a interim basis in late 2012 (the change is now permanent), some food activists regarded the move with suspicion.

Food Politics’ Marion Nestle warned, “What’s at stake here are sales of meat and grains to school lunch programs.” Amie Hamlin, executive director of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, also saw the hand of food lobbyists at work, criticizing the move as nutritionally unnecessary.

But while legislators from meat- and grain-producing states did lobby for the changes, so did school food professionals around the country who claimed the caps were making menu planning unnecessarily complicated and restrictive. And given that the overall calorie limits on school lunches remain in place (a maximum of 550 to 850 calories depending on the age of the student), most food policy experts see no harm in the change.

Jessica Donze Black, director for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, calls the modification change a “pragmatic and scientifically sound decision,” and San Francisco-based school food reformer Dana Woldow agrees:  “[The calorie caps] will automatically limit the amount of potentially fatty protein and grains going into the meals. I think the days of seeing giant cheeseburgers the size of your head in school cafeterias may be over.”

biegeShould Fruits and Vegetables Be Served–or Just Offered?

Other proposed changes to the HHFKA’s new meal patterns are more controversial, including one that affects how fruits and vegetables are served. Under the old school meal rules, children could forgo fruits and vegetables so long as they took the required total number of meal components. (Known as “offer versus serve,” this system allowed kids to create an “all-beige” tray, like the one pictured on the right, which was spotted in a Houston high school in 2011.) Under the HHFKA, however, children must take a serving of fruit or vegetables.

But the industry-backed SNA wants to see schools go back to simply offering fruits and vegetables. The group, which is the largest organization of school food professionals in the country, says that forcing students to take fruits and vegetables has resulted in “increased program costs, plate waste, and a decline in student participation.”

SNA’s proposal angers school food reformer Woldow, who notes wryly that “the only way to guarantee that kids won’t eat fresh produce is to let them walk right by it without taking any.” And while food waste, and particularly wasted fruits and vegetables, is an undeniable problem for school districts, most food advocates argue that reverting to “offer versus serve” isn’t the answer.

Chef Ann Cooper, one of the pioneers of school food reform and the current director of nutrition services for the Boulder Valley, Colorado School District, counsels districts to be patient and take an active role in encouraging kids to try healthier foods. “Regulations without education won’t work,” she says. “You can’t expect kids brought up on high-fat, high-salt and high-sugar food to give it all up overnight for apples and broccoli.”

Cooper’s recommended approach is reportedly working in districts around the country. Wootan of CSPI says, “Many schools aren’t experiencing this problem. They are doing a good job in determining which healthy options kids like best and will eat … [by] doing taste tests, trying new recipes, having kids vote on favorite fruits and vegetables, getting kids involved in marketing the school meal programs, improving the cafeteria environment, and giving kids enough time to eat.”

“Having the right equipment can also be critical in getting children to eat the foods,” adds Black. “For instance, students are more likely to consume sliced and chopped fruits than whole fruits. Thus, simple tools like sectionizers [automated slicers] can make a huge difference.”

But Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the SNA, says these approaches aren’t enough. “Our members have held taste-tests, launched farm-to-school programs, hosted community-wide nutrition events, and gotten chefs involved to get students to try and enjoy the variety of fruits and vegetables offered … But at the end of the day, some students just don’t want to take a fruit or a vegetable,” she says.

The Fight Over White Flour and Sodium

The new school lunch rules also require that half of the grain-based foods–breads, pastas, tortillas, etc.–served in schools be “whole grain-rich,” meaning they contain at least 50 percent whole grains. In fact, starting in the 2014-15 school year, all these foods will be whole grain-rich. But, once again, questions have come up about how quickly students can adjust to healthier food.

SNA hopes to partially roll back this rule and permanently apply the standard to only half of the grain-based foods. “Schools nationwide have struggled to find specialty whole grain rich items … that students accept,” says SNA’s Pratt-Heavner. “Some schools, particularly in rural areas, are challenged by limited availability of products that meet the standards, while others struggle with strong regional preferences for refined grains such as white rice, grits, or tortillas.”

Woldow, on the other hand, points out that under the current requirement, a full three-quarters of the grains eaten by school children are still highly processed and refined, which contradicts the dietary recommendations of leading medical organizations. “Since all of the science indicates that eating more whole grains improves health in a myriad of ways,” she says, “I find the SNA position indefensible for any organization claiming to be all about improving nutrition for kids.”

SNA is also seeking to delay further sodium reductions in school meals, again citing the problem of low student acceptance. But in this case, the request may be less controversial; even the Institute of Medicine has acknowledged that further reducing sodium “in a way that is well accepted by students will present major challenges and may not be possible.”

Should Cash-Strapped Schools Get a Pass?

Congresswoman Kristi Noem (R-SD) recently introduced a federal bill which would not only lift the calorie caps (a frequent target of conservative pundits and politicians), but also allow school districts to waive any and all requirements of the HHFKA if doing so would result in “increased cost.” Of course, most districts will have to spend more, given that healthier food generally costs more than highly processed food.

Noem’s legislation, which would effectively gut the entire HHFKA, seems unlikely to become law in the face of a Democratic-controlled Senate and an administration that regards the HHFKA as one of the First Lady’s signature achievements. But Noem’s bill has support from the National School Boards Association and the School Superintendents’ Association—a fact that reflects a common complaint among school districts that the HHFKA’s “6 cents per lunch” reimbursement increase is simply not enough to pay for the law’s healthier food mandates.

More Delays Possible

The SNA, whose “patrons” include ConAgra, Kraft, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Pizza Hut, is also seeking to delay the implementation of the “Smart Snacks in School” rules as well as a requirement that all school breakfasts contain a cup of fruit starting next year. The organization successfully lobbied to insert language in the Congressional report accompanying last month’s 2014 Omnibus Spending Bill, advising USDA to provide a one-year waiver for “any school district that will incur increased cost due to implementation of these rules.” (If USDA allows such waivers, it’s likely that the majority of districts will be able to make this case.) SNA is also asking USDA to reopen and extend the comment period on the school snack rules until July 2015, another means of delaying those rules from going into effect.

Modify the Rules or Stay the Course?

The hand of Big Food lobbyists may well be at work behind some of these proposed modifications to the HHFKA, particularly those which would delay the “Smart Snacks in School” rules. But other changes, such as those relating to how fruit and vegetables are served, reflect the real difficulty some school districts face in changing the eating habits of their students.

Some school food professionals have long argued that healthful school food is unlikely to be accepted without corresponding changes in a child’s home environment. Or, as one child nutrition manager recently noted in a comment on The Lunch Tray blog, “Our school programs don’t see the first child in a family until after well over 4,000 meals have already been consumed.”

Of course, Big Food advertising has a hand in those meals, as well. Given the almost $2 billion a year in advertising for processed food directed at children, it’s perhaps not surprising that the introduction of healthier school meals has resulted in more food waste and fewer students eating in cafeterias–at least in the short term. (According to a study conducted by SNA, 47 percent of responding school nutrition directors saw a decline in revenue in the first year of the HHFKA’s implementation.)

Yet most school food and health experts insist that schools must stay the course rather than roll back the gains of the HHFKA.

“We didn’t get obese overnight and we’re not going to turn the ship around overnight.This is a decades-long–if not generations-long—process,” says Chef Cooper.

CSPI’s Wootan agrees. “Giving up on our kids’ health,” she says, “is not the answer.”

12 thoughts on “State of the Tray: Will Recent Improvements in School Food be Rolled Back?

  1. What blows me away is when I hear folks from the SNA, parents or even lawmakers take the defeatist position that kids just aren’t interested in eating the healthier school foods. Do they really expect a generation raised on unhealthy processed foods to leap for joy and make an easy transition to healthier fare? Do they really think we should go back to feeding our kids poor food choices in school, just because the kids (understandably!) are having a hard time adjusting? We got our kids into this mess of craving unhealthy junk by serving it to them endlessly, instead of fruits, vegetables and other nutritionally sound foods. If we want to change the norms and help these children live long and healthy lives, we have to be patient. It’s going to take awhile for kids’ tastebuds to become accustomed to the real food we should have been serving them all along. Stay the course!

  2. Nancy:

    I couldn’t agree more.

    Yet I also feel (as I’m sure you do as well) great sympathy for the school food professionals trying to stay within budget while kids are throwing away healthier, often more expensive food.

    The answer, in my opinion, is not rolling back standards but providing schools with adequate funding to cover their costs. Yet I was told by SNA that they’ve been told in no uncertain terms by contacts in Congress that a funding increase is off the table for the 2015 CNR.

  3. I agree, Bettina, that school meal programs deserve adequate funding to cover the costs of healthier fare. And recalling how difficult it was to get the 6 cent per lunch increase in the HHFKA, I’m not surprised Congress doesn’t intend to raise reimbursement rates any further. It’s the usual shortsighted, worldview of Congress; they’d rather skimp on paying for healthy school meals while watching the cost of obesity and chronic disease-related medical expenses go through the roof — which taxpayers wind up paying billions for through the public insurances, Medicaid and Medicare. That said, let’s make a lot of noise to ensure that there are no roll backs in the HHFKA requirements. Many school food service professionals are doing well, financially, with new healthy menus. I hope they are able to share their best practices with those who are struggling. Patience and determination are needed if we care about our kids!

  4. You have completely left out the component of health and nutrition include cognition. Science is very clear that the consumption of fat does not lead to over weight youth. You want to simply blame Big Lobby for changes and that is not true. Please do the same research on the benefit of fat from whole milk (CLA/Omega 3) and meat in terms of Vitamin B12, zinc and fat for brain function. Restricting caloric intake to meet the needs of the 1/3 of the students that are obese is not healthy and the reason for needed changes. More over we need few couch potatoes not white potatoes.

  5. Do any of you really think school lunches are the cause of childhood obesity? You can’t seriously believe restricting calories or banning processed foods from grade school cafeterias will eradicate childhood obesity. What is wrong with you?

  6. Trent Loos: Under the old school meal regulations, there were calorie minimums but no maximums – a reflection of the program’s original intent in addressing malnutrition. But to be clear, the new calorie maximums are not set to promote weight loss, but instead reflect the needs of average kids by age group. (In other words, the nation’s youth have not been put on a diet program!) As for the benefits of whole milk versus skim, I’m not in a position to opine but I do know that the science on that point may be changing and you may well be right. Thanks for your comment here.

  7. Puzzled: I certainly don’t think school meals are the cause of childhood obesity, or even necessarily one of the most significant contributing factors. That said, each and every day, millions of American children eat both breakfast and lunch at school, and an increasing number (in larger urban areas) are also receiving school supper. And I strongly believe we need to do right by those children, both in terms of serving them food that both promotes long term health and food which teaches them (the central role of a school after all!) what healthful meals and snacks are supposed to look like. Does that make sense?

  8. Kelly: I admit I’m laughing at that menu, with its lawyerly insertion of “in moderation after a balanced lunch.” :-)

    I would have to compare the nutrition facts of each of those products shown to know if they’ll pass muster when the Smart Snacks in Schools rules go into effect, but I’m guessing many of them will, particularly as manufacturers reformulate chips and other snacks to be “whole grain rich.”

    There’s no question that the snack rules are a huge improvement over the old scheme of virtually no rules at all, but I fear we’re still going to see a fair amount of “better-for-you” junk food.

  9. If the months I spent sitting in on meals at my daughter’s school taught me anything it’s that you can’t legislate the way kids eat from a committee room in Washington. I watched the kids pick through home-made lasagna to remove the spinach. I saw all the sweet potatoes and whole grain pasta dumped in the trash. Get the worst of the junk out of schools, that would be a giant leap forward. Except the industrial food lobby has already shown it can beat back radical change where the federal regs are concerned.

    The French, who care so much more about how their kids eat, have a perfectly apt expression for our woeful school lunch program: Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Loosely translated: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Please pass the chocolate milk.

  10. It will take a long time to change children’s point of view on meals, and only changing their meals by introducing vegetables will either take a very long time, cause children to stop using school food programs, or make them more likely to throw their food away. Introducing vegetables needs to be fun for them! Nutrition education with gardening can help, getting the kids closer to the means of production and more willing to eat healthier food.

  11. Education is the answer, not just for the kids but for the whole family. People do not know how to cook, or even what some of the vegetables are! On Food Day last year, we had the kids taste turnips, rutabagas, and beets, sliced with white bean dip. They liked it! They also asked for the vegetarian red beet, apple, and carrot wraps we sampled that day, to be on the menu. The problem is lack of labor, money, equipment, nutrition knowledge and willingness on many in the school district. It is an uphill battle, but one that can be won, one taste at a time!