This July, new nutrition rules for school meals and snacks will take effect. It will mark the second phase of the bipartisan Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act that was passed by Congress in 2010. But a debate is now raging on Capitol Hill over the standards for healthy eating that were set by that legislation. It’s not about crafting new or better standards, but whether Congress will do an about-face, lower the bar, and turn its back on science.
Many low-income students rely on school meals as a primary source of nutrition. While Congress hasn’t been able to agree on much these days, it was able to unite around the issue of improving the diets of children in America. Why? Because of the overwhelming scientific evidence that the diets of our children are setting them up for a lifetime struggling with disease. One in 3 children in the U.S. are obese. A 2012 study by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation predicted that obesity rates in the U.S. could exceed 44 percent by 2030, costing our country an additional $66 billion per year in medical expenses. Poor eating patterns are major contributors to childhood obesity and other chronic diseases that begin in childhood, such as Type 2 Diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
But instead of allowing the implementation of these new well-founded nutrition standards, the House Appropriations Committee passed a 2015 funding bill in May that weakened standards. That’s when the outcry began; eighty-five organizations spoke out against the gutting of the new standards in a joint letter:
“ We… strongly oppose efforts… to change or weaken federal child nutrition programs, including potential efforts to require the inclusion of white potatoes in the WIC Program, to alter or delay implementation of meal standards in the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, or to weaken or delay rules to limit sugary beverages and unhealthy snack foods in our nation’s schools. For decades, Congress has wisely ensured that federal child nutrition programs have been guided by science. Science-based decisions have served our children and our nation well. Accordingly, we strongly urge you to oppose efforts to intervene in science-based rules regarding the federal child nutrition programs.”
The new standards for school lunches and snacks set forth in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act were written in collaboration with the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents 55,000 “school nutrition professionals.” But SNA has now withdrawn their support for the very rules they helped to create. Last week, SNA CEO Patti Montague asked First Lady Michelle Obama to support the House bill and its weaker nutrition standards.
“Our members simply want relief from some of the onerous regulations slated to take effect this summer,” Montague said. “[They] will lead to fewer students receiving healthy school meals, more food being thrown away and many school meal programs in financial straits”.
In a letter to the First Lady and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, SNA also requested that the USDA or Congress act to prevent raising the standard for whole grains; maintain the current standard for permissible sodium levels, rather than improving it; and eliminate the requirement that students take a fruit or vegetable with their meals.
SNA justifies its new position in part by claiming that the new standards have led to more plate waste and decreased participation in the school lunch program. But the USDA points to a recent study by the Harvard School of Public health indicating that the new standards have not led to increased plate waste, and that data shows participation has actually been on the decline since 2006.
So what’s really behind this new plea from SNA?
According to writer Bettina Elias Siegel of TheLunchTray.com, we need to look at SNA’s corporate ties. The organization receives significant funding from companies like Kraft, ConAgra and PepsiCo. These corporate sponsors would surely benefit from the loosening of school lunch standards because they would not have to reformulate popular brands in order to sell to school districts. Also, huge food service corporations like Aramark, Sodexo and Chartwell (Compass)—which operate approximately one-fourth of school lunch programs in the US—get a lot of their business from these same major food corporations. As noted in a New York Times editorial, “An increasingly cozy alliance between companies that manufacture processed foods and companies that serve the meals is making students — a captive market – fat and sick while pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars in profits.”
So are there legitimate concerns raised by SNA in regard to budgets, food waste and student acceptance of healthier foods? Sure. But maybe its response to these issues would be quite different if SNA were not financially hitched to Big Food.
The good news is that the First Lady is not backing down. She came to her meeting with SNA accompanied by Dr. James Perrin, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Perrin reminded the group that children consume up to half of their daily calories in school, so it’s important that those calories are high-quality. He called the rollback of standards “the wrong choice for children”—one that would “put politics ahead of science.”
Or perhaps, more accurately, it’s a choice that puts money and profits ahead of science and children.