When Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced late last year that his agency was permanently weakening certain school nutrition standards, it was a resounding victory for the School Nutrition Association (SNA).
For many years, this organization of over 57,000 school food professionals had been pushing the USDA to roll back key provisions of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, claiming its members needed to abandon certain science-based nutritional advice to have more “flexibility” in planning school meals.
But now that school districts can freely serve children more white-flour foods and delay recommended reductions in sodium, many health advocates have wondered: is the SNA satisfied, or will it press Trump’s obviously-receptive Department of Agriculture to further weaken federal school nutrition standards?
Well, now we have the answer. . . .
Earlier this week, over 900 SNA members gathered in Washington, DC for the organization’s 47th annual Legislative Action Conference. The purpose of the event was to persuade federal legislators to advance the organization’s 2019 legislative agenda, which includes this item: “Encourage USDA to modify the Smart Snacks in School rule to allow all menu items that are permitted to be served as part of a reimbursable meal to be sold at any time a la carte.” In other words, if a food can be offered to children on their lunch trays, districts should also be able to sell that same item for cash as an a la carte snack.
In a separate explanatory document, the SNA explains why it’s making this request. Because the current Smart Snacks rules limit total fat in a la carte snacks to no more than 35 percent of total calories, the SNA says, healthy foods like “nuts,” “hummus,” “guacamole,” and “veggies brushed with olive oil” can’t be sold to children as cafeteria snacks. And because Smart Snacks rules limit sodium for a la carte entrees to no more than 480 milligrams, schools also can’t sell a la carte entrees like “low-fat deli-style turkey breast” sandwiches and “salads, or vegetables paired with dip.” The SNA concludes its one-pager by arguing that “[a]llowing foods that already meet nutrition standards for school meals to be sold as daily a la carte choices . . . ensures students can choose from a variety of healthy options in the cafeteria.”
Now, if I’m a federal legislator and some SNA members stop by my office to explain that current rules are preventing the sale of hummus and roasted vegetables to kids, it’s going to seem like a no-brainer. And if I happen to be a conservative lawmaker, I might also relish the prospect of later telling my Red State constituents how I personally helped crush a ridiculous, Michelle Obama-led, Nanny State rule that was so over-the-top, it actually prevented the sale of salads to kids. Can you believe?
The problem is, the SNA’s one-pager, along with the talking points it gives members for lobbying, don’t tell lawmakers the whole story: If the Smart Snacks rules are changed to allow the sale of any item offered in a school meal, not only will turkey sandwiches pass muster, but so will all the “treats” allowed on the lunch line like French fries, pizza slices, corn dogs, fried chips, beef nachos, cookies, and ice cream.
I raised this issue with Margo Wootan, vice president for nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, to get her thoughts. “School meals are carefully designed by school nutrition professionals to contain items that when served together create a balanced meal that includes key food groups while moderating levels of saturated fat and sodium,” she explained. “But when less healthful items are sold individually, students get the negative nutrition components, such as sodium or saturated fat, without getting the positive nutrients from the rest of the items that balance the meal. Plus, students can buy more than one of those less healthful items. Instead of purchasing a reimbursable meal that contains a slice of pizza, carrots, fruit, and milk, a student could purchase three slices of pizza in the a la carte line.”
I should be clear: I’m not saying we shouldn’t reexamine the Smart Snacks rules to allow for the sale of truly healthy snacks like nuts, hummus, and guacamole. But there are ways achieve that goal — namely, careful statutory drafting — without opening the nachos-and-fries floodgates. And while I’m sure some districts wouldn’t take advantage of this proposed rule change to offer daily pizza and fries, most districts very likely would. That’s not because the men and women running these districts are bad people, mind you. It’s because the national school meal program is so underfunded, most districts are desperate for more a la carte revenue.
And let’s get real: when you’re on the hunt for more revenue, which food would you dangle in front of kids’ noses every day: “veggies brushed with olive oil” — or pizza slices?
Now for three more school food items — and also some fun news for me:
A Terrible Idea in Arkansas
Many of you wrote to me with alarm regarding a new school meal bill in the Arkansas legislature which would cut a school’s federal school meal funding if its students’ reading scores fail to meet certain benchmarks.
It is, of course, a truly horrible idea—but also one I suspect is going precisely nowhere. I can’t claim to have done any legal research, but I just don’t see how a state can legally block the federal government’s reimbursement of school meals, if those meals were served in compliance with the requirements of the National School Lunch Program. (If any lawyers out there disagree with my assessment, please let me know in the comments.) Indeed, I have to wonder if the bill was primarily introduced to garner some publicity for its sponsor, representative Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale). If so, he certainly has achieved that goal — in spades.
If there are any more developments regarding this wrongheaded proposed legislation, I’ll share them here.
Some Great Ideas in Ohio
And now for some good school food news. Sally Kuzemchak, blogger at Real Mom Nutrition, shares an inspiring story this week, How One Mom Became a School Food Champion, which describes the efforts to Wende Hageman to overhaul the food at her children’s parochial school in Ohio.
As Sally correctly notes in the story, school districts may face particular challenges that prevent the sort of scratch-cooking Hageman has instituted. But that doesn’t mean they can’t learn from and implement many of her initiatives, including a sampling program to get kids acclimated to new and healthier foods.
A Strong Rebuttal to Recent School Meal Roll-Backs
Finally, I wanted to share with you a recent opinion piece written by two former Secretaries of Agriculture — one who served under President Bill Clinton and the other under President George W. Bush — blasting the Trump administration’s school nutrition roll-backs as nothing less than a threat to our national security.
Kid Food Cover Reveal Coming Soon!
And now for some fun personal news: I just got the OK from my publisher to share with you and the rest of the world the truly gorgeous cover for my forthcoming book, Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World. So you can look forward to a fun “cover reveal” here on TLT sometime next week! 🙂
You can follow TLT on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram! You can also subscribe to Lunch Tray posts, and you can download my FREE 50-page guide, “How to Get Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom.”
♥♥♥ And look for my new book Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World—out this fall from Oxford University Press!♥♥♥