Well, We Saw This Coming

Back in February, when I was asked to write a piece for Civil Eats on the state of school food, it became clear to me that some of the hard-won school food gains of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act are now in jeopardy.  With reports of decreased student participation in meal programs and trash cans full of discarded fruits and vegetables, the climate is ripe for a variety of factions to chip away at the new regulations — and the scheduled reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act in 2015 (commonly referred to as the “CNR”) will give them a prime opportunity to do so. 

Yet even before the CNR is on the table, the wrangling over school food has already begun.  As I reported here back in March, House lawmakers were able to insert language in the Congressional report accompanying the 2014 Omnibus Spending Bill advising USDA to grant schools a one-year waiver on two important new school food requirements:  an increase in fruit served at breakfast and the implementation of the widely lauded “Smart Snacks in School” rules.  That effort failed when the USDA ultimately informed lawmakers that the agency’s lawyers found USDA lacking the legal authority to grant such waivers.

But apparently House lawmakers remain undeterred.  As Helena Bottemiller Evich reported in Politico yesterday, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture is trying a new tack:  including language in the fiscal 2015 spending bill to again block key school food improvements, this time focusing on certain whole grain requirements as well as the “Smart Snacks in School” rules.  Meanwhile, according to Politco, 41 lawmakers (of which three are Democrats) were planning to send a letter to USDA late last week seeking to achieve the same ends, as well as suspending stricter sodium requirements due to go into effect in 2017.  Congressional representatives interviewed by Politico see these moves as short term strategies to hold the line on school food improvements, until they can be permanently scaled back via the CNR.

I remain disheartened that the School Nutrition Association, the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals, is in support of all of these measures.  In particular, this quote from Politico was especially discouraging:

The association points out that, under the competitive foods rule, items approved to be part of a school meal, like sandwiches, pizzas or fries, can be sold only as à la carte items the day they are also offered as part of a USDA-reimbursed meal and the following day. SNA wants those items allowed for sale five days a week without having to meet much stricter competitive foods standards, which include “extremely aggressive” sodium limits. 

This means the SNA is urging a return to a system in which kids (at least those with some money in their pockets) can make a meal from a slice or two of pizza and some fries from an a la carte line every day of the week.  Yet this is exactly the dismal state of affairs we’ve worked so hard to overcome in the last few years.

Equally disheartening is lawmakers’ politicization of the regulatory process.  As Jessica Donze Black, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, said in Politico:

“These are regulatory questions. Editing regulations via the appropriations process is just bad policy. Anything they do that takes regulatory authority out of USDA and takes us out of the scientific process, is potentially a dangerous precedent.”

I’ll keep you posted on new developments here.

(Hat tip to Nancy Huehnergarth for sharing the Politico story on Twitter.)

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