Food Fight: School Nutrition Rules in Gridlock as Deadline Nears

While students across the U.S. have been off for the summer, a food fight has been heating up in Washington, D.C., over the type of meals that will be served in schools when they return. 

The fight is over the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), which revised nutrition standards for schools for the first time in 15 years and is set to expire on Sept. 30. The legislation, championed by first lady Michelle Obama as part of her “Let’s Move!” campaign and signed into law by President Barack Obama, requires schools to serve more fruits and vegetables and caps calories and sodium in school meals.

Republicans have slammed the changes as executive overreach and a one-size-fits-all approach. Critics say the regulations are too strict and result in wasted food and children unhappy with their meals. They see the reauthorization of the law as a chance to demand revisions that would give schools and students more options. Proponents argue that relaxing the new nutrition rules would set up students for a life-time of poor health. 

Groups like the School Nutrition Association (SNA), National School Boards Association and The School Superintendents Association have been pushing Congress to loosen some of the requirements, pointing out that the new standards are costly to implement. 

“SNA members working on the front lines in schools are urging Congress to recognize there are challenges to address,” School Nutrition Association CEO Patricia Montague told NBC Owned Stations in a statement. “Unintended financial consequences, increased food waste and meal planning restrictions are impacting schools' ability to plan healthy meals that students choose and consume.”

The group would like to see rules that require 50 percent of all grains served in schools to be whole grain rich, as opposed to 100 percent required by the new rules. They also don’t want requirements that further reduce lower sodium levels by 2017, until research proves more reductions to have health benefits. Critics also want to eliminate a requirement that forces schools to make each student take half a cup of fruits or veggies with every meal.

According to a report from the Government Accountability Office, students’ participation in the National School Lunch Program declined by 1.2 million students from school year 2010-2011 through school year 2012-2013, after having increased steadily for many years. SNA also pointed out that more food is going to waste as a result of the provisions and that in some schools students order fast food or run to the nearest convenience store after school.

“Nationwide, 95 percent of schools are meeting the required standards, but compliance has resulted in fewer students eating healthy school lunches and rising costs that are crippling many school meal program budgets,” Montague said.

Advocates for current standards say the claim that the decline in participation in the National School Lunch Program is due to the nutrition standards update may not be entirely true. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of the country's leading health advocacy organizations, there are other contributing factors, like school mergers, closures, and consolidation and that the decline started long before the standards were updated. In fact, the center said, almost half of all states have experienced an increase in participation from March 2014 to March 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

“Schools are making great progress in improving the nutritional quality of their offerings, with 95% serving more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and less salt and trans fat,” said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “We need to support schools continued efforts, not roll back this progress.” 

Champions of the school nutrition standards say reversing them back would have disastrous effects on the health of 45 million children who eat school lunches and breakfast each day. They say their goal for reauthorization is to protect the progress already made. Rolling back the rules “would not only be detrimental to children's health in the short-term, but would set them up for a lifetime of chronic disease and possibly even an early death,” Kristy Anderson, Government Relations Manager at the American Heart Association, told NBC Owned Stations.

She said further reductions in sodium levels in school meals is important to children’s health, because "more and more children are developing high blood pressure due to too much sodium in their diets, which could lead to heart disease or stroke before they even become adults.”

The association launched a petition in June to keep the first lady’s school lunch regulations intact and and has even tried to inject some humor into the debate. It partnered with comedy video website and film/TV production company Funny or Die and “Parks and Recreation’s” Nick Offerman to highlight what’s at stake in the school lunch debate.

"The government tells us we need to offer healthy choices in school lunches, but what is healthy, really?" Offerman says as he holds up an apple and a corn dog. "The answer may surprise you." He then gives a tour of a “pizza farm” where “healthy” snacks like taquitos and fish fingers are “grown."

Jim Weill, president of the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) said there is more to the reauthorization than just the fight over school nutrition standards. FRAC is pushing for a bill in the reauthorization that would make is easier for nonprofits and public agencies to serve summer meals with federal dollars at parks, recreation programs and boys and girls clubs, because “hunger spikes in the summer in a lot of communities among kids.” Weill said the organization also hopes to improve nutrition standards in child care centers and family child care homes by securing federal funding in the reauthorization.

The HHFKA authorizes all of the federal child nutrition programs, including the School Breakfast, National School Lunch, Child and Adult Care Food, Summer Food Service and WIC. Most of these programs are permanently authorized to continue after the Sept. 30 deadline and others are likely to get an extension. 

Proponents of the improved school nutrition standards point out that a majority of parents support the standards and that the support cuts across racial and political lines, according to a poll released by the The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the American Heart Association.

“Our children are healthier because of [HHFKA],” Anderson said. “We know that the more children are exposed to nutritious foods, the more they accept and like eating healthy – and it sets them up for a lifetime of healthy eating habits. So our message is stay the course.”

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