A fight over food erupted in Washington when a U.S. House of Representatives panel proposed a measure that would let some schools take a year off from heightened nutritional standards for student meals.
The latest chapter of debate over the implementation of the standards created under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 had been rumored for weeks.
The School Nutrition Association, which campaigned for the waiver language, argued that the meal standards have been difficult and costly for districts to apply and have led to an excess of discarded food.
Advocates for the standards, including several large public health organizations, argued that the need to confront childhood obesity is too important to back away from the healthy meals rollout, and that implementation concerns are best addressed through flexibility in drafting and applying regulations, not through congressional intervention.
In a rare political move, first lady Michelle Obama, who has made fighting childhood obesity the centerpiece of her public platform, also joined in the debate. She vowed to fight the proposal in a guest editorial for The New York Times and at a meeting with a panel of school lunch leaders last week.
“The last thing we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health,” Mrs. Obama said at the May 27 meeting in Washington. She called the waiver effort “unacceptable to me, not just as first lady, but also as a mother.”
The nutrition standards have been implemented gradually since they were adopted in 2012. They require schools to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat milk in school meals; to reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat; and to “meet the nutrition needs of school children within their calorie requirements.”
The contentious waiver proposal came in the form of language included in the Republican-led House Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee’s budget proposal on May 19. The waiver language survived an attempt by some House Democrats, led by California Rep. Sam Farr, to amend it out of the bill before it was passed by the full House appropriations committee May 29.
The language directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the school lunch and breakfast programs, to create a process to allow schools to opt out of the heightened meal standards for the 2014-15 school year if they can demonstrate “a net loss from operating a food-service program for a period of at least six months that begins on or after July 1, 2013.”
In response to the House proposal, the Senate appropriations committee on May 22 amended its agriculture appropriations bill to address some school meal concerns without providing a method for districts to opt out all together.
The Senate language would require the USDA to stop a ratcheting-up of sodium restrictions pending further scientific research, to evaluate products available for school food providers to comply with more stringent whole-grain requirements, and to suggest alternatives when products are lacking. It would also require the USDA to report back within 90 days after the bill’s passage with a plan to provide training and technical assistance to schools to reduce plate waste, comply with nutrition requirements, and maintain participation in the National School Lunch Program.
“To produce a blanket waiver and to back off entirely would be unacceptable,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who helped create the amendment language.
The House and Senate must now decide if they will negotiate a compromise between the approaches.
The White House has taken a strong stance against the House proposal. Press Secretary Jay Carney started his press briefing last week with a statement that said the move “replaces the judgement of doctors and nutritionists with the opinions of politicians.”
In at least a half dozen media conference calls over a week, supporters and opponents of the waiver language fought to win public support for their sides.
Supporters of the waivers included the National School Boards Association and the Council of the Great City Schools.
Opponents include the National Education Association, an ad hoc group of 100 children’s health organizations; and Mission: Readiness, a group of former military leaders who believe childhood obesity will threaten the nation’s military strength in the future.
More than 90 percent of schools have reported compliance with the nutritional standards, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said, and many are reporting increased participation under the new rules.
The School Nutrition Association called that figure “misleading.”
“USDA’s certification review process only evaluates one week of school menus to determine if schools are compliant with the standards, and does not require schools to report on whether menu adjustments are sustainable and accepted by students,” the group said in a press release.
Around the country, school meal programs “are struggling with declining student participation, increased costs, and overly prescriptive requirements that stifle menu creativity and reduce the appeal of healthy school meals,” SNA President Leah L. Schmidt said in a conference call with reporters.
The association surveyed its members and found that, in the 2012-2013 school year, 47 percent of respondents said that revenue declined in their school meal programs.
But Secretary Vilsack said he believes the waiver plan goes too far in addressing implementation concerns about the new standards.
“This generational change has to be given the time to continue making the progress that we’ve seen in the last couple of years,” he said in a conference call with reporters. Mr. Vilsack said he is more comfortable with the Senate proposal.
The USDA will continue to work with districts to ease implementation through grants for equipment and flexibility where it is necessary, he said. That includes leeway provided by the agency last week for districts that cannot meet the whole-grain requirements set to kick in July 1, and a January decision to permanently ease restrictions on grain and protein servings.
A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2014 edition of Education Week as Battle Lines Drawn on Waivers From School Lunch Rules