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School-Meals Rules Lauded as Healthy Shift

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Washington

When the Agriculture Department announced plans last month to revamp the federal school-meals programs, many educators and nutrition advocates felt that the government was finally waking up from a long slumber.

President Harry S. Truman inaugurated the school-lunch program in 1946, and the regulations have never been altered to reflect the nutritional discoveries of the latter half of this century.

Last month, the Clinton Administration issued proposed regulations requiring schools to limit the average fat content of meals and to serve meals that meet the United States Dietary Guidelines, a set of general nutritional recommendations drawn up in 1990.

By replacing the current rules--which mandate a strict "meal pattern'' that requires, for example, one serving of meat and two servings of vegetables or fruit at each meal--the new system would allow schools to serve what they want as long as they stay within the fat limits and each meal provides one-third of the recommended daily allowances of vitamins and nutrients. (See Education Week, June 15, 1994.)

The 92,000 schools participating in the programs would have to comply with the new rules by the 1998-99 school year.

"Because this mission is so central to our children's health, we want to make sure that the food put on their plates is based on the science of today, not the policies of 1946,'' Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy said in announcing the proposed rules.

Nutritional Defense

The school-lunch program has its origins in World War II, when draftees were failing physical examinations because of nutrition-related ailments, according to a U.S.D.A. history of the program.

After the war was over, Congress passed legislation to make the program permanent, and it has expanded substantially. Today, 25 million children are served by the school-lunch program, which cost $4.7 billion this year. The school-breakfast program started as a pilot project in 1966, became permanent in 1975, and now serves some 5.4 million children each day.

But the programs have changed relatively little as they have grown.

"Legislators spent most of the 1980's fighting proposals to cut the knees out of the these programs,'' one Democratic aide to the House Education and Labor Committee said, noting that Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush both proposed slashing school-lunch subsidies. "This is the first time we've had to get out from under the battlements.''

In 1981, President Reagan proposed helping schools respond to budget cuts by changing the program's guidelines to allow condiments--such as ketchup and relish--to be classified as vegetables. The proposal became infamous and was ultimately withdrawn.

In addition, critics say, during that period satisfying the interests of commodities producers often took precedence over nutrition. One potent symbol of this emphasis was the federal government's stockpile of excess high-fat commodities, such as butter, which were stored in warehouses to be used for school lunches.

Indeed, the program had a dual purpose from the start, and that is why it is run by the U.S.D.A. The preamble of the National School Lunch Act declared that it was both "a measure of national security to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation's children, and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities.''

"For a long time the program has been a way of getting rid of excess commodities,'' said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "It was a dumping ground.'

Educators and nutrition advocates have mostly applauded the Clinton initiative as an overdue response to heightened public concern over children's health.

Reinventing Lunch

Many credit Ellen Haas, the assistant secretary for food and consumer services at the U.S.D.A., for the change. As the founder and former executive director of the advocacy group Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, Ms. Haas came to the department with a reform-minded agenda.

"The regulations are part of our reinvention of the school-meals program,'' Ms. Haas said in an interview last week.

A more health-conscious public has also encouraged the shift and may embolden Congressional leaders to make significant changes--including some that have been shot down in prior years--as they reauthorize the National School Lunch and Child Nutrition Act this summer.

The U.S.D.A. has the authority to change nutritional guidelines, but Congress can block or strengthen the rules in its legislation.

The House Education and Labor Committee has passed a reauthorization bill that substantially incorporates the new U.S.D.A. regulations.

The committee also approved an amendment that would allow all schools to purchase their commodities through letters of credit. Schools currently receive 14 cents worth of commodities directly from the U.S.D.A. for each meal served. The "commodity letter of credit,'' or CLOC, system--being tested in 60 sites--would give schools more flexibility in buying foods.

Legislative Maneuvers

But the House Agriculture Committee voted to strike the pilot program when it approved its reauthorization bill last month, arguing that the system would make bulk purchases of surplus food more difficult for the U.S.D.A.

The two House committees are trying to fashion a compromise before the measure goes to the House floor later this month. A similar debate is expected in the Senate.

Lawmakers are also debating an amendment the House Education and Labor Committee approved that would allow schools to stop serving whole milk if it accounts for less than 1 percent of sales. Current rules require milk as part of each meal, and require schools to offer whole milk. Previous efforts to loosen those requirements have been defeated by the dairy lobby.

Dairy-industry officials have said that the new regulations would cost dairy farmers $200 million.

But compared with previous years, the commodities lobby has been relatively quiet.

Some observers say that opponents may have been placated by Administration officials who have hinted at offering alternative outlets for surplus commodities.

While Ms. Haas denies that such promises were made, one dairy lobbyist said that the government may redirect the excess commodities it purchases to nonprofit organizations or send them overseas as part of foreign-aid packages.

Meanwhile, the agricultural industry is responding to consumer demand with more low-fat foods.

"You can either be on the bandwagon or be chasing it,'' one Senate aide commented.

Budgetary Limits

While new political dynamics may make a renewed nutritional focus for school-meals programs possible, current budgetary dynamics may make it impossible to implement wholesale changes.

This year's Agriculture Department budget earmarks $18 million for technical assistance in support of the new rules, a sum many education advocates argue is grossly insufficient.

"Many schools don't have dietitians who sit down and do meal plans,'' said Diane Shust, a lobbyist for the National Education Association. "You are setting schools up to fail, and then what is going to happen to the children?''

Others complain that the Administration has focused on only one of the meals programs' problems--fat--while ignoring such problems as high levels of salt and cholesterol.

Some advocates also say increasing the program's reach is most important.

The lunch and breakfast programs have been steadily losing participants, and 300 schools have dropped out of the programs in the last four years, according to a recent General Accounting Office report. Every day, the report said, the programs fail to reach millions of poor children who are eligible.

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