Student Well-Being

School Lunch: Vilsack Responds to Criticisms of Nutrition Standards

By Evie Blad — September 08, 2015 4 min read
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Along with holding debates on Iran and the federal budget, Congress is due this month to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act.

That act, currently known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, sets policy for a group of federal nutrition programs, including school breakfast, school lunch, and summer meals. It is reauthorized every five years.

Conversations about reauthorization have stirred up familiar debates about the merits of nutrition standards, championed by first lady Michelle Obama, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture created to comply with the latest version of the law. Those standards required schools to restrict levels of fat, calories, and sodium in meals while also offering more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Participating schools also had to implement competitive food standards, which set standards for items served throughout the school day, in places like vending machines, a la carte lines, and fundraisers.

Congress should stay the course on school meals and refuse to scrap or weaken the standards in reauthorization, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an event at the National Press Club today.

“If you’re food insecure, if you’re hungry, if you’re concerned about your image in schools, you’re not going to be the learner you could be,” he said.

Here’s how Vilsack responded to some of the most frequently mentioned concerns about school meal standards.

Participation in School Meal Programs Is Down

The School Nutrition Association, which has lobbied for changes to the standards, frequently cites declining participation as a key concern. USDA data show about a million fewer students eating school lunches since the standards were implemented.

“What’s down is paid lunch, and that actually didn’t start with the imposition of the new standards,” Vilsack said, blaming poor economic conditions for the drop.

At the same time as those numbers trend down, more students are eating free and reduced-price lunches and breakfasts, he said. And, as more schools take advantage of the community eligibility option to offer free lunches to all students, more low-income students who aren’t registered for free and reduced-price meals will qualify, raising participation, Vilsack said.

It’s Too Expensive and Too Difficult to Implement New Meal Regulations

“The fact is that 95 percent of school districts across the country have embraced these standards and are certified in compliance” with the nutrition standards Vilsack said, citing USDA participation numbers.

But SNA and other critics of the standards have said that figure is misleading. Just because districts are in compliance doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling to balance their budgets and adapt to the needs for training and equipment created by the requirements.

About $28 million provided to states for support of school meal programs remains unspent, Vilsack said, encouraging concerned districts to talk to their state agencies. And some districts that have complained about struggling nutrition budgets have tapped school meal proceeds to support other, non-food functions, he said.

Vilsack also announced an additional $2.6 million in federal funds to help states provide additional training to school food personnel and an additional $5.6 million to help create “Smarter Lunchrooms,” which use a variety of tactics involving things like food labeling and placement to encourage students to make smarter food choices.

Workers Say Students Are Throwing More Food Away

School food workers have said they’ve seen an increase in discarded food, or “plate waste,” as they’ve complied with the new standards. And a recent study by University of Vermont researchers found that many students are throwing away required servings of fruits and vegetables rather than eating them.

But that’s just one study conducted with a relatively small sample size, Vilsack said. He pointed to other studies of plate waste, like one done by Harvard University researchers that found increased fruit and vegetable consumption and rather stable levels of plate waste under the new rules.

As Vilsack spoke, the School Nutrition Association released its requests for Child Nutrition Act reauthorization, which include additional flexibility in applying the rules and a 35-cent increase in federal reimbursements for school lunches. The organization cited recent member survey findings about increased costs and decreased participation.

“Findings revealed nearly eight in ten programs have had to take steps to offset financial losses—steps that could hinder continued efforts to improve menus,” SNA said in a release. “Almost half reduced staffing, and many cut into reserve funds, cancelled or deferred equipment purchases and even limited menu choices.”

Responding to a reporter’s question, Vilsack said he didn’t expect Congress to support such a reimbursement increase.

“In a perfect world, I would ask for additional resources in many aspects of my budget,” he said. “But I don’t live in a perfect world, I live in Washington, D.C., right now.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.