Earlier this year I wrote a piece for Civil Eats called “State of the Tray” in which I explained how some of the key gains of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) may be rolled back when the Child Nutrition Reauthorization comes before Congress in 2015.
One of the most contentious issues under consideration is the current mandate that children take a fruit or vegetable at lunch, a break from past regulations which allowed kids to spurn those healthful foods if they took the requisite total number of meal requirements. Since the implementation of the new fruit and vegetable rule, districts around the country have been reporting greatly increased food waste as students take the required food and then toss it in the trash.
This food waste may only increase when, starting next year, schools will also have to increase the amount of fruit served at breakfast from 1/2 to one full cup. In a large urban district like mine, where over 80% of our kids are economically disadvantaged and a universal, in-class breakfast is the norm, that additional food waste and expense for my district is likely to be considerable.
The School Nutrition Association (SNA), the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals, has asked USDA to revert to the old system under which children can pass on fruits and vegetables at lunch. But the SNA is not alone in advocating for this roll-back. Numerous conservative politicians and pundits (perhaps seeing a prime opportunity to attack an initiative so closely tied to the Obama administration generally, and the First Lady in particular) have also vocally criticized the new school food rules and are pushing for revisions to (or even a complete gutting of) the HHFKA. (You can read more about those efforts, including new, Republican-introduced legislation, here.)
On a personal level, I abhor food waste as much as anyone. And, having now worked closely with Houston ISD’s Food Services department for the last four years, I feel only sympathy for school districts trying to balance their budgets while meeting the HHFKA’s healthier school food mandates, all in the face of insufficient funding and negative student reactions to the food.
That’s why I and many others have argued that the HHFKA simply can’t succeed unless it’s bolstered by widespread nutrition education to prime children for the healthier food they’re now encountering in the cafeteria. But no one makes that case more articulately than Chef Ann Cooper in a new U.S. News & World Report opinion piece. Cooper, one of the true pioneers in school food reform, writes:
Why would a child choose an apricot over hot Cheetos or a Pop-Tart when he doesn’t understand the consequences of his daily choices? Why would anyone choose salad over nachos if they’ve developed a taste for salt and fat, while fresh greens are a mystery?
Cooper goes on to describe how, after improving the school food in her district in Boulder, CO, there was a predictable drop-off in student participation. But with consistent, dedicated nutrition education in the Boulder Valley schools, Cooper reports that meal participation in her district is now at a higher level than before the new changes were implemented. Cooper’s nutrition education isn’t free, however, and she acknowledges that her district must raise funds from third parties to cover the costs.
As I’ve already argued here on The Lunch Tray, it’s incumbent upon Congress to step up and fund similar nutrition education around the country if the HHFKA is to succeed in its goals. And it’s deeply disheartening, in my opinion, that the SNA — arguably one of the most influential voices on school food issues — is not leading the charge to obtain this funding but is instead essentially throwing in the towel by advocating a return to the old school food rules on fruits and vegetables.
If the SNA won’t take a stand on this issue, the rest of us need to get our voices heard. I’ll have thoughts on that down the road, but in the meantime, I think this quote in Cooper’s piece puts the issue squarely in perspective:
It’s not fair to expect children to switch from cookies to kale without telling them why it’s important and giving them a chance to get used to it. But it’s also not fair to give up on their ability to make that switch. Let’s give them the education they need to make the right decisions. Let’s make sure all schools institute food literacy as part of the core curriculum; it’s the only way we’ll change our children’s relationship with food, cultivate their palates and save their health.
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