School Nutrition Association Blasts Federal Lunch Regs

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Congress is about to reauthorize First Lady Michelle Obama’s healthy school lunch program, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. At the same time, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) is working to influence the rules for healthy school lunches and is asking Congress for funding to hire nutritionists to create appealing, child-friendly options for students, writes Lydia Wheeler of The Hill.

Although the SNA is all for calorie caps and the inclusion of more fruits and vegetables, according to Patricia Montague, SNA CEO, the association is concerned that some of the USDA’s regulations have increased costs, have caused waste, and have resulted in students trading healthy school meals for junk food. The USDA states that participation in the program is declining.

The SNA is proposing an increase in the per meal reimbursement for school breakfasts and lunches by 35 cents. They plan to keep the Target 1 sodium level reductions and suspend execution of further targets. Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, sodium levels must be less than 1,230 milligrams in elementary schools, 1,360 mg in middle schools, and 1,420 mg in high schools, dropping to 935 mg, 1,035 mg, and 1,080 mg, respectively, by 2017. The SNA is also requesting that the 2010 standard of at least half of all grains being whole grain rich replace the current  requirement of 100% whole grain rich grains.

The increase of 35 cents to assist districts in providing meals which meet the federal nutrition requirements will cost about $2.5 billion based on the 2014 fiscal numbers, writes Daniel Enoch reporting for AgriPulse. Chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) is leading the effort to allow school districts that are losing money because of the program to receive a waiver from some of the requirements. His idea is opposed by congressional Democrats and the First Lady.

Other items in the SNA’s proposal include allowing individual school food authorities (SFAs) to determine whether a student took a fruit or vegetable as part of a USDA reimbursable meal; selling any food that is part of a reimbursable meal at any time as an a la carte item; and generally simplifying the child nutrition programs.

The SNA added that rising food and labor costs have threatened the financial viability of meal programs. When school districts have to pick up the tabs for programs that can’t cover the costs, those expenditures have a negative impact on students.

“Many schools are doing a great job serving healthy meals at the current reimbursement rates,” Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy with the Center for Science in the Public Interest said. “But it can be tricky for smaller schools, schools with lower participation rates, schools in areas with higher costs of living, etc.”

United Fresh Produce Association President and CEO Tom Stenzel’s comments on the announcement of the School Nutrition Association’s 2015 Position Paper were published on FoodConsumer. He says he agrees with many of the SNA’s recommendations, but is most concerned by its fight to lessen the amount of fruits and vegetables served to school children. He adds that the one-half cup of fruits and vegetables each day for school children has been successfully met nationwide. Stenzle says that his industry has donated thousands of salad bars to schools to serve a variety of fresh, affordable fruits and vegetables. With an addition as simple as a $3,000 salad bar, students could easily go beyond the one-half cup requirement.

Nancy Huehnergarth writes in her blog for the Huffington Post that the School Nutrition Association’s allegiances lie with major processed food corporations. The SNA, she reports, offered a conference that was sponsored  by Domino’s Pizza, Jennie-O Turkey Store, ConAgra, Five Star, General Mills, Kellogg, Sara Lee, Barilla, Kikkoman, Land O’Lakes, PepsiCo, Rich Products, and Schwan. The conference, according to Politico’s Morning Ag, was described as “an event to build partnerships and talk about how the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act regulations are affecting ‘the business of school nutrition.’

Huehnergarth states there is nothing wrong with food industry participation and input since this event is billed as a School Nutrition Industry Conference. But, she adds, it seems that the event was about how SNA could help its sponsors increase their profits.  The SNA, she believes, seems intent on lessening the amount of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains on children’s trays to get more junk food in their diets.