by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: School-food

May 20 2014

Update on Congress vs. school nutrition standards

The Associated Press reported that First Lady Michelle Obama rallied supporters of the USDA’s nutrition standards for school meals in an off-the-record telephone call “with advocacy groups to discuss ongoing efforts around school nutrition and the significant advancements we have made to make it easier for families to raise healthy kids.”

Screenshot 2014-05-19 21.58.14

Today the House Committee on Appropriations is doing its markup on the agricultural appropriations bill.  This is likely to overturn nutrition standards established by scientific experts in order to:

  • Reverse USDA’s nutrition standards for school meals.
  • Reverse the exclusion of white potatoes from the WIC package.

As Politico puts it,

In the case of WIC and white potatoes, the provision follows on strong lobbying by the industry which is hoping to win similar language Thursday when the full Senate Appropriations Committee is slated to consider its own version of the same agriculture bill.

…For the industry, concerned that younger women have moved away from potatoes, gaining access to WIC is an important marketing tool.

Just as strongly, critics worry that the end result will be to open the door to other special interests and wreck a long-standing commitment by Congress to let independent scientists decide what foods are most needed.

As I see it, the food industry couldn’t get its way through the usual rulemaking processes, so it did an end run and got Congress to overturn the work of no less than three committees of the Institute of Medicine.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack explains what’s at stake:

The House bill would undermine the effort to provide kids with more nutritious food and would be a major step backwards for the health of American children, just at the time childhood obesity rates are finally starting to level off. School nutrition standards are developed by independent experts, over 90% of schools report that they are successfully implementing them, and studies show they are working to help kids be healthier. USDA has continued to show flexibility in implementing these new standards, and Congress should focus on partnering with USDA, states, schools, and parents to help our kids have access to more healthy food, not less.

In an e-mail, the Pew Charitable Trusts wrote:

We are disappointed that the House agriculture appropriations bill includes a provision that would weaken national nutrition standards for foods served in schools…it is unfortunate that the House would consider letting schools opt out of efforts to improve the health of children served through these program…Ninety percent of schools already report that they are meeting USDA’s updated nutrition standards for school lunches. Turning back now would be a costly mistake.”

The School Nutrition Association disagrees.  In its version of reality, “since these standards took effect, more than one million fewer students choose school lunch each day, reducing revenue for school meal programs already struggling to manage the increased cost of preparing meals under the new standards.”

To this, Claire Benjamin of Food Policy Action, asks:

Why are Members fighting to roll back school nutrition standards? Our nation is facing a health and obesity crisis, and rather than think about the future of our children the members pushing for these rollbacks are only thinking about future campaign contributions,” said Claire Benjamin, managing director of Food Policy Action (FPA). “Schools have already made real progress implementing the reforms, and it is extremely disappointing that some members of Congress are advocating for business as usual.”

Other responses:

Write your Congressional representatives and ask them to leave nutrition standards to scientists, not food companies with vested interests in selling their products to government food assistance programs.

Additions, May 20:

Addition, May 21:

Addition, May 24:

  • Major General says school nutrition standards are a matter of national security
May 15 2014

Action Alert #2: stop congressional micromanagement of school nutrition standards

Congressional interference with school nutrition standards is looming large on the horizon.

Margo Wootan of CSPI is collecting signatures on a petition to stop this.  She writes:

Some members of Congress are playing politics with our children’s health. We expect they will act on Tuesday May 20 to gut nutrition standards through the appropriations process.

They might say they just want to provide schools with a little more “flexibility,” but their changes would roll back standards on salt, whole grains, fruits/vegetables, and snacks.

These are the same people who legislated that pizza is a vegetable (because it contains a little tomato sauce)!

…Thankfully, ninety percent of schools now meet the updated nutrition standards for school lunch, helping millions of students get more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. 

In summary:

  • Congress is trying to micromanage  school nutrition standards to win political points.
  • Schools need support and technical assistance, not a free pass to serve junk to kids.
  • And kids need nutrition standards based on science, not politics.SIg

SIgn the petition.  Better yet, write you own letter.

May 7 2014

What’s up with school meals and standards?

USDA deserves a thank-you note: the agency announced it is awarding $25 million in grants to help schools buy kitchen equipment.  Yes!

The grants are a response to a report by the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project – a collaboration with The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  The report found that 88% of school districts nationwide need at least one piece of equipment, and 55% need infrastructure upgrades.

You can send a quick note of thanks to the USDA Office of Communications at oc.news@usda.gov.

Thanks are needed because nutrition standards for school meals are under intense pressure from:

School meals need help, but not that kind.

Apr 28 2014

Act now: support USDA’s wellness policies for schools

Now is the time to tell USDA you support its proposed guidelines for nutrition education, physical activity, and junk food marketing in schools:

The bipartisan Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 mandated that the USDA set guidelines for what needed to be included in local school wellness policies in areas such as setting goals for nutrition education and physical activity, informing parents about content of the policy and implementation, and periodically assessing progress and sharing updates as appropriate. As part of local school wellness policies, the proposed guidelines would ensure that foods and beverages marketed to children in schools are consistent with the recently-released Smart Snacks in School standards. Ensuring that unhealthy food is not marketed to children is one of the First Lady’s top priorities; that is why it is so important for schools to reinforce the importance of healthy choices and eliminate marketing of unhealthy products.

Here are two easy ways to make sure USDA follows through on the guidelines:

Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has a website set up for quick letters:

While many schools have adopted policies over the past few years to support healthy eating and physical activity, implementation has not been uniformly strong. USDA’s proposed updates will strengthen implementation, help parents be better informed about the policies, and provide schools with more tools and resources.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) asks for signatures on a letter urging the USDA to ban all advertising in schools:

The USDA is urging schools only to limit junk food marketing. By attempting to set a ceiling that prohibits advertising for unhealthy foods, the USDA may set a floor that opens the floodgates for many other types of marketing in schools, setting a dangerous precedent that goes far beyond food.

Now is the time….

 

Mar 17 2014

The battles over school food: cupcakes again.

In devising science-based nutrition standards for school meals, USDA’s goal was to promote healthier diets.

You might think everyone would rally around proposals to help America’s kids grow up healthier, but no.  Special interests are at stake.

Jerry Hagstrom writes that “First Lady has food industry in a frenzy.”

Over the decades the food industry, school food service directors, farmers, and the rest of agribusiness have won many battles with nutritionists and the medical profession over government policies on what Americans should eat.

Interesting lineup of allies, no?

Last week, Congress held a hearing on all the complaints it’s getting about school meals.

Politico Morning Agriculture reports that the issue is cupcakes—again.

THE CUPCAKES ARE SAFE: The Department of Agriculture does not intend its proposed rules on the marketing or sale of junk foods in schools to prohibit class treats, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a hearing held by the House appropriations agriculture subcommittee Friday.

“We are not going to stop mom or dad from bringing in cupcakes,” Vilsack said.

The arguments over school food are not about kids’ health.

They are about who makes the most money from taxpayer subsidies of school meals.

School food service directors are on the wrong side of this one, alas.

Mar 7 2014

Universal school meals? Not quite, alas.

Last week during the rollout of all the accomplishments of Let’s Move!, I wrote enthusiastically about one of them: universal school meals.

I pointed out that schools in which 40% or more of children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals will now be permitted to serve free breakfasts and free lunches to every student in the school, regardless of family income.  Oops.

And I said: This program, which will affect 22,000 U.S. schools and 9 million children, is cost-neutral.  Oops again.

Ain’t necessarily so, not so simple, it’s complicated—objected four readers who know a lot more about the arcane rules for school meal reimbursement.

  • My first error: the 40% refers only to kids eligible for free meals, not reduced-price.
  • Second error: because of the reimbursement formula used by USDA, cost-neutrality does not kick in until 60-65% of the kids are eligible for free meals.

Let’s hope I get it right this time.

Readers explained that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 authorized a Community Eligibility Provision.  This allowed schools serving mostly low-income children to serve all meals to all children at no cost.

USDA reimburses the schools using a formula based on the percentage of students identified as eligible for free meals as certified by some other means-tested program such as SNAP or being homeless.

USDA rolled the program out gradually in pilot projects.  Seven states participated in 2013.

The idea was that if the pilot projects were successful–which they were–the program would be available to all states by 2014-15.

My take: school districts with lots of low-income kids ought to be doing this, but making the programs pay for themselves requires high levels of outreach and involvement.

Advocates:

  • Get your school districts to apply.
  • Work with the schools to make the food so good that all kids will want to eat it.
  • Tell USDA you want to get rid of the complications: authorize universal meals for all school children

A challenge?  Yes, but worth it.

As I pointed out, universal school meals put an end to:

  • USDA paperwork requirements for ensuring eligibility.
  • Parents having to fill out complicated eligibility forms.
  • Schools having to monitor to make sure kids’ families have turned in the paperwork or paid.
  • Schools turning away kids whose families haven’t paid.
  • Schools destroying the meals of kids whose families haven’t paid.
  • Students knowing who gets free meals, and who does not.

These new rules are a step in that direction and deserve advocacy support.

Feb 25 2014

Let’s Move! announces universal school meals !

Let’s Move! is making several sensational announcements today.

Announcement #1: Universal school meals

This one is extraordinary: Schools with 40% or more of children eligible for free or reduced-price meals will be able to serve free breakfasts and free lunches to every student in the school, regardless of family income.

This means an end to:

  • USDA paperwork requirements for ensuring eligibility.
  • Parents having to fill out complicated eligibility forms.
  • Schools having to monitor to make sure kids’ families have turned in the paperwork or paid.
  • Schools turning away kids whose families haven’t paid.
  • Schools destroying the meals of kids whose families haven’t paid.
  • Students knowing who gets free meals, and who does not.

Guess what:  This program, which will affect 22,000 U.S. schools and 9 million children, is cost-neutral.

How is this possible?

  • No more tedious, labor-intensive, expensive paperwork and monitoring.
  • More student participation means more reimbursement.

This is just what school food advocates have been saying for years (see, for example, Janet Poppendieck’s Free For All: Fixing School Food in America).

For this alone, Let’s Move! deserves enthusiastic congratulations.

Announcement #2: limits on marketing junk foods and sodas in schools

As discussed in ObamaFoodorama today, USDA’s new rules will:

  • Ban the marketing of unhealthy foods to children on school grounds.
  • Phase out on-campus advertising for sodas and junk foods at schools during the school day.
  • Apply the ban to places such as scoreboards on football fields and in gymnasiums, on vending machines, and on menu posters, cups and plates in cafeterias.

This is good news and a terrific step in the right direction, even though there are plenty of loopholes:

  • Scoreboards with Coke logos, for example, can be phased out over time.
  • After-school fundraisers and concessions at sports events are exempt.
  • Schools can opt out.

These announcements are a tribute to the persistent work of school food advocates over a great many years.

But there is still plenty of room for more advocacy:

  • Universal meals for all public schools.
  • Closing the loopholes on junk food marketing to kids.
  • Ensuring compliance with school meal standards.

The relevant documents

Sep 10 2013

School food: the cruel consequences of bad school-lunch policy

A reader writes:

Willingboro, NJ School Board has taken action effective for the 2013-2014 school year to discard a school meal rather than feed a student, if their parents cannot, or haven’t arranged to, refill their student’s lunch account.

Take a look at this letter from the school board administrator announcing discontinuation of humanitarian meals:

If a student goes through the food service line and it is discovered that the student does not have the required funds for a meal, the Chartwells Food Service representative has been instructed by the Willingboro Board of Education to withhold the meal from the student, with the understanding that such meal cannot be re-served and must be discarded.

I was appalled by the letter.  Hungry kids need to be fed.  They can’t learn if they are hungry.

But before going on a rant, I consulted my go-to, school-food guru, Kate Adamick of Cook for America.  She explains the fiscal realities of current school-food policies:

The truth is that there are many, many school districts that do not feed kids whose parent will not pay for them.  Some, as seems to be the prior practice of the Willingboro district, offer a “humanitarian” meal (typically, a peanut butter sandwich and a carton of milk), though that is by no means required of them and by no means universal.

Of course, students who qualify for free meals under the USDA regulations cannot be refused free school meals (provided that the proper paperwork has been filled out on their behalf or that they qualify under other regulatory or statutory provisions).

The refusal to feed everyone, regardless of whether they pay, has become a more pressing issue in recent years, both because the number of families who don’t qualify for free meals but can’t afford to pay for them has increased at the same time the school food budgets have become tighter…Many school districts are truly struggling to keep their financial heads above water….

The REAL answer is for the federal government to provide free meals for all kids.  I doubt, however, that will come to pass in our lifetime.

Here’s how this system works:

  • Unlike other aspects of school education, the government requires school-meals programs to be self-supporting.  They must at least break even or do better, which is not so easy given current reimbursement rates.
  • The government reimburses schools for federally supported school meals based on the number of participants.
  • Parents often cannot or do not want to fill out the paperwork.
  • This leaves schools with a dilemma.  If they provide free meals, they lose money.

Some school districts, like the one in New York City, do everything they can to make the system work so that hungry kids get fed.   Willingboro’s school board has chosen to follow the rules to the letter, regardless of the effects of this decision on kids in its schools.

Universal school meals would solve many of the problems caused by current school food policies (for evidence, see Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in America).

Ready to join the universal school meals movement, anyone?

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