Course Correction:  Will Congress Get the School Meals Program Back on Track?

Most of us remember the routine of rushing to the school cafeteria each school day to fuel up between classes and visit with friends. Often a topic of conversation among parents and children, the school food experience is changing. In most schools, dining space is more attractive and comfortable than ever before and the food is tastier and healthier than it’s ever been.

Then why all the recent fuss about the school lunch program?

It all started several years ago when the Obama Administration, led by First Lady Michelle Obama, engineered a phalanx of new rules designed to make school meals more nutritious, including:

  • Less sodium
  • More whole grains
  • More fruits and vegetables

Sounds simple, right? Not so fast. Many schools have found that, despite good intentions, the new rules go too far too fast and are too expensive.

A recent survey conducted by the School Nutrition Association (SNA) shows program participation is down and the amount of food discarded by students is up. The study also showed that 80% of schools are struggling to pay for the mandates, with the new rules costing schools a $1.2 billion collectively each year. That’s money they have to find on their own, so schools are choosing to lay off kitchen staff and defer equipment repairs and purchases.

Rather than suffer in silence, our nation’s school meal experts are asking Congress and the Obama Administration for a mid-course correction. They are seeking a few common sense changes to the regulations:

  • They want the ability to use non-whole grain products some of the time rather than 100% of the time as required by current standards. That would reduce costs, minimize food rejection and enhance the ability to serve more exciting, palatable foods like wraps and tortillas.
  • They want to relax the sodium reduction schedule to make a wider variety of foods – especially vegetables – more appetizing. This request follows recent news from the Institute of Medicine and the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee that very aggressive daily sodium limits, like the ones USDA is recommending for the school lunch program, are not necessary for good health.
  • The mandate that each student must take a half-cup of fruit or vegetables with every meal is a budget busting rule and the food is often rejected, so schools are asking for flexibility to reduce the fruit/vegetable mandate to reduce food waste and costs.
  • Typical of Washington bureaucrats, the government created the new, more expensive regulations without providing schools with the money to pay for them. So school meal experts want the government to cover the cost of the nutrition mandates in the form of a higher reimbursement rate per participating child.

These are reasonable requests from the folks who are on the front lines, taking care of our nation’s children each school day. However, the Obama Administration and its Department of Agriculture that oversee the school meal program simply aren’t listening.

Rather than engage in a constructive dialogue, the Administration and some in Congress have resorted to name-calling, accusing SNA and its members of standing in the way of progress. Why? Because the White House and USDA Secretary Vilsack are fixated on obtaining 100% compliance with the nutrition rules so they can claim victory in their war on childhood obesity. It doesn’t matter to them whether the food is consumed or not or whether schools go broke in the process. It’s pure politics and ideology to them.

School meal experts are not defending the status quo – they want healthier meals in schools like everyone else. What they posses are actionable lessons learned while serving more than 40 million meals in schools each day. The changes they are seeking are reasonable, will improve school lunch participation, keep schools financially solvent and most importantly, provide school students with tasty and nutritious meals.

There will be a lot of activity and news about this issue in the coming months, as Congress is required to reauthorize the child nutrition program this fall. Here is to hoping Congress gets it right. For the sake of our children and our schools, it’s the right thing to do.

Sean McBride, Founder of DSM Strategic Communications & Consulting, LLC, is former Executive Vice President for Communications & Membership Services for the Grocery Manufacturers Association and former Director of Communications at the American Beverage Association