School Lunch Debate: What's At Stake?

School Lunch Debate: What's At Stake?

5:00pm Jun 11, 2014
Nutrition standards for school lunches are at the heart of an agriculture spending debate in the House this week.
kcline /
Nutrition standards for school lunches are at the heart of an agriculture spending debate in the House this week.

School lunches have never been known for culinary excellence. But to be fair, the National School Lunch Program — which provides free or reduced lunches to about 31 million kids every day — has never aimed to dazzle as much as to fill little bellies.

In 2010, Congress gave the Federal School Lunch Program a nutrition make-over. New regulations called for:

  • Increasing the amount of whole grains served in school cafeterias
  • Shifting to fat free or low-fat milks
  • Limiting the amount of calories that can come from saturated fats to 10 percent
  • Offering fruits and vegetables on a daily basis
  • Implementing caloric minimums and maximums for each meal

Those were just the first steps. By the school year starting this fall, schools are also required to:

  • Reduce the amount of sodium school cafeterias can serve to a maximum of 1,230 to 1,420 milligrams a day for lunch (depending on age group) and 540 to 640 milligrams a day for breakfast.
  • Shift to 100 percent "whole grain-rich" products, which means that they are mostly whole grain.

In the agriculture appropriations bill, which may come to a vote on Thursday, schools would also receive additional support for making the transition to a healthier menu, including provisions to help them purchase new equipment to prepare fresher foods.

Sam Kass, senior advisor for nutrition policy at the White House, says 90 percent of schools have already — or are in the process of — implementing the new standards.

But GOP leaders, as well as the School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service directors and several companies that supply school cafeterias, say the upcoming requirements are unworkable. They claim that kids don't want the healthy options and, as a result, too much food is being wasted. They also say that the cost of reducing sodium and other preservatives are placing an undue burden on schools.

Alabama Republican Congressman Robert Aderholt introduced a provision that would give school districts a year-long waiver from both old and new standards if they can show that they are losing money.

First Lady Michelle Obama, who helped spearhead the new regulations, is vehemently opposed to delaying or softening the new regulations.

So is Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. He says that kids will eat healthier foods if they are provided with them and claims that, overall, school food revenues around the country are up by about $200 million dollars since the changes took effect.

"The facts just don't basically support the notion that somehow school district are financially strapped to be able comply," he said.

His advice for schools that are struggling: instead of asking to opt-out, ask for help.

The hearings over the waivers started on the House floor Wednesday.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. There's a food fight heating up on Capitol Hill. The House intends to vote today or tomorrow on funds for the $15 billion school meals program. But the bill would also undermine nutrition standards set five years ago by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.

GREENE: That was something championed by first lady Michelle Obama, but now she and the administration are fighting to preserve the standards which mandate more fruits, vegetables and whole grains on kids' lunch trays.

MONTAGNE: We have two reports this morning. Peter Overby looks at the lobbying efforts to weaken and delay the standards. But first, NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on how schools are faring when it comes to mandating healthier food.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: It wasn't long ago when the school cafeteria at Shalawn Kelly's high school in Chicago seemed to serve up the same three lunches.

SHALAWN KELLY: We had pizza, chicken patties, nachos - and that's about it.

AUBREY: So how did she and her classmate Mallory Montgomery feel when new standards came along mandating more fruits and vegetables every day?

MALLORY MONTGOMERY: When I first thought about it, I'm like, nah-uh, 'cause I didn't like bananas at first. And then when I started tasting it and keep eating and keep eating, it's more - a lot of kids like it. And we tried it at our school. The kids loved it.

AUBREY: This is exactly what nutrition advocates had in mind when the new standards were put in place in 2012. To address the obesity epidemic, schools were told to cut back on salty, fatty foods and introduce kids to new, healthier ways in the hopes that, slowly, their preferences and habits might change. Sam Kass, the senior advisor for nutrition policy at the White House, says 90 percent of schools have already, or are in the process of, implementing the standards. And it's beginning to change how kids eat.

SAM KASS: And the evidence is just clear. They're eating more fruits and vegetables.

AUBREY: But there are some school food directors who say it's not happening in their districts - at least, not yet.

ARTIE FREGO: It's a very tough situation. It's been really challenging to get the kids to accept the changes.

AUBREY: That's Artie Frego, director of food service for a cluster of small school districts in upstate New York. He says what he's seen is that some students won't eat the whole grains or the fruits and vegetables that they're told to put on their trays.

FREGO: Basically, what happens is kids rebel just a little bit. They don't like being told what to take.

AUBREY: And he sees more food just being tossed out.

FREGO: It could be applesauce. It could be an apple. It could be an orange. But we do see a lot more waste in the trash than we used to.

AUBREY: Frego says some kids have stopped buying lunch because they don't like it. And this combined with the waste means his cafeterias have been losing money. In an effort to help schools like Frego's, the School Nutrition Association is asking lawmakers to get involved. They want Congress to relax some of the new mandates. And they found a sympathetic ear in Congressman Robert Aderholt, a Republican from Alabama.

CONGRESSMAN ROBERT ADERHOLT: We're not talking about reverting back to pizza and french fries every day for lunch. But I think the standards that are coming out of Washington, D.C., right now are just over the top.

AUBREY: And too rigid. For instance, the tighter restrictions on sodium, the rules on whole grains and fruit and vegetables, as well as rules on what kinds of snacks are OK to serve. The provision Aderholt's trying to push through would give school districts that are struggling financially a way out of the nutrition standards by granting them a one-year reprieve or waiver.

ADERHOLT: To me, this is a common sense solution to an overreaching problem.

AUBREY: But his critics on the other side of the aisle and in the Obama administration argued that relaxing or postponing the standards is a bad idea.

TOM VILSACK: It's taking a step back when we need to continue moving forward in terms of child nutrition.

AUBREY: That's Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. He says despite the complaints, research has shown the standards can work.

VILSACK: Frankly, the reality is a Harvard study indicates that kids are, indeed, eating more fruits and vegetables as a result of the new standards.

AUBREY: And furthermore, Vilsack says overall school food revenues around the country are up about $200 million since the changes took effect.

VILSACK: The facts just basically don't support the notion that somehow school districts are financially strapped to be able to comply.

AUBREY: His advice for schools that are struggling - instead of asking to opt out, ask for help. There are now lots of success stories of schools serving up good-looking, healthful food that kids will eat. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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