Nutrition Group Lobbies for More Free School Meals

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More than 600 school nutrition professionals took to the halls of the Capitol last week, lobbying legislators and their staff members in favor of a bill that would allow more poor children to receive free school meals.

The Reduced Price School Meal Pilot would allow five states to experiment with eliminating the “reduced price” category for school lunches and breakfasts. Currently, families eligible for reduced-price lunches must pay 40 cents for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast for their children.

Even that cost is too much for some families, particularly if they have to pay for more than one child, said representatives from the 55,000-member School Nutrition Association attending its 35th annual legislative-action conference.

Congress has authorized, but not yet funded, the pilot program, which would cost $23 million over three years. About 9 percent of children in the school lunch program are in the reduced-price category. Free- and reduced-price meals make up almost 60 percent of all lunches served through the federal program.

“Every day, our SNA members are confronted with children who cannot afford the fee,” Janey Thornton, the president of the association’s board of directors, said in her testimony March 6 before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. The committee hearing was scheduled to coincide with the nutrition group’s lobbying efforts.

‘Competitive Foods’

The senators did not discuss the issue at the hearing. On another issue concerning school nutrition, however, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the committee, introduced a bill last week that would create a federal standard for food sold outside the cafeteria, as in vending machines. Right now, restrictions on those “competitive foods” are made at the state or local level.

“School breakfast and lunch programs adhere to strong guidelines, but as soon as students leave the cafeteria, they are inundated with the overpromotion of junk food in vending machines and snack bars,” Mr. Harkin said in a statement. The SNA supports his bill.

Ms. Thornton told the senators that when the 24,000-student Salt Lake City school district eliminated the reduced-price fee, making meals either full-price or free, lunch participation rose 50 percent and school breakfast participation rose 300 percent.

Congress needs to pay for the pilot program to determine “once and for all whether it is the fee, as opposed to some other variable, that is keeping these low-income children from the program,” said Ms. Thornton, who is the child-nutrition director for the 14,000-student Hardin County school district in Elizabethtown, Ky.

Members of the SNA also turned their attention to a long-term goal: The creation of a national nutrition standard for all food sold in schools, which would go beyond Mr. Harkin’s proposal. States, counties, and some individual school districts have adopted their own nutrition standards in order to battle childhood obesity. Those standards often apply not just to food sold in the cafeteria, but to vending-machine sales, food sold in school stores, and even treats given out in classrooms by teachers.

But good intentions have led to a patchwork of different standards that have made it difficult for food producers to keep up, according to food-industry leaders and school nutrition experts. If a food producer is required to produce different chicken nuggets to meet several state standards, it drives up costs for everyone, they say.

“It’s starting to get crazy,” Ms. Thornton said in an interview. “We’re finding that even within states, local districts are setting additional standards.”

But such a national standard likely would not be in place before 2009, when the National School Lunch Program is up for reauthorization. Ms. Thornton said the association will gather information from its members and other experts so it can recommend a standard to replace the requirements now in place.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages the school lunch and breakfast programs, also would be sure to weigh in, she said. The focus for last week’s legislative lobbying session, she said, was just to bring the issue to the attention of lawmakers.

Though revisiting the school food program is a couple of years years away, smaller programs that affect schools are within the 2007 farm bill now under consideration in Congress.

Among the programs included in that bill is the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which provides those foods daily to children in 375 schools in 14 states. The program costs about $15 million a year, and the nutrition association would like to see it expanded, said Teresa Nece, an SNA member who also testified before the Senate committee.

Before the program started in her district, many of the children had never seen a whole, unsliced pear, said Ms. Nece, the food and nutrition director for the 31,600-student Des Moines, Iowa, district. Now, children are eating pears, berries, fresh pineapple, and jicama, a starchy legume.

The nutrition association also favors more assistance with the school breakfast program.

Under the lunch program, in addition to monetary reimbursement from the federal government, schools receive about 18 cents worth of food for every school lunch, such as beef patties, peanut butter, and canned and fresh fruit.

Breakfast programs, however, receive no such commodity food. The association is advocating 10 cents worth of commodity foods for each breakfast served, to make it more cost-effective to offer breakfast.

Vol. 26, Issue 27, Pages 21, 25

Published in Print: March 14, 2007, as Nutrition Group Lobbies for More Free School Meals
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