An End In Sight for the School Food Fight?

A bipartisan measure has passed that could improve the quality of the food served in schools.

Over the last two years, I’ve kept you updated on Civil Eats regarding a brewing controversy over school food nutrition standards. That battle now seems likely to end in a relative victory for children’s health.

Here’s the background. Greatly improved school meal nutritional standards went into effect in the 2012-13 school year, requiring more whole grains, a reduction in sodium and more fruits or vegetables. When they were first adopted in 2010, these new standards received bipartisan support as well as the endorsement of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), the nation’s leading organization of 55,000 school food professionals.

But by early 2014, these same nutritional improvements looked like they might be rolled back. Claiming difficulties in implementation and increased food waste, the SNA surprised many observers by embarking on an aggressive lobbying campaign to weaken them during the 2015 reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.

While some speculated that Big Food (which funds half of the SNA’s operating budget) was behind this sudden about-face, Politico‘s Helena Bottemiller Evich reported last summer that, by and large, the food industry had little interest in weakening the new standards because they had already spent time and money conforming its products to them. Instead, among the SNA’s main allies in this fight were House Republicans, which meant that school food, historically a bi-partisan issue, became unusually politicized.

But after two years of highly charged, partisan debate, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (Republican-Kansas) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (Democrat-Michigan) have managed to broker a deal— the Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016. And so far it seems acceptable to both advocates and the SNA, while still supporting the kids’ health.

Here are the specifics:

Reactions to the Compromise

In a press release issued last Friday, SNA President Jean Ronnei said the organization “was pleased to work alongside USDA in crafting practical solutions to help school nutrition professionals in their ongoing efforts to improve school meal programs for students. In the absence of increased funding, this agreement eases operational challenges and provides school meal programs critical flexibility to help them plan healthy school meals that appeal to students.”

Food advocates also seem happy with the deal. Dana Woldow, writing for Beyond Chronquotes Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project, as saying: “This plan keeps school meal programs moving forward with kids’ health as the first priority.” And New York University professor and food politics expert Marion Nestle told Woldow, “The SNA lost some significant battles here and its retrogressive demands have been greatly softened. This should give school food advocates much satisfaction that their efforts paid off and that school kids will be eating more healthfully as a result.”

What Happens Now? 

Bottemiller Evich, writing for Politico Pro (subscriber-only), outlines the next steps for the Senate Agriculture Committee compromise: “Following [the] markup of the bill, it’ll just be up to the House to strike its own compromise—which may be easier said than done—or sign onto the Senate version, which the committee says has the support of the White House.”

Stay tuned.

A version of this post originally appeared on The Lunch Tray.

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