So, remember last year’s “CRomnibus” spending bill? It ended, at least for fiscal year 2015, the ongoing battle between the School Nutrition Association, which wants to roll back key school food nutritional standards, and the many school food and public health advocates who want to keep those standards in place. Under this temporary compromise, schools still must serve kids fruits and vegetables, but any district which can show “hardship” may be allowed to waive out of the requirement that all grain foods served be 51% whole grain. Instead, such districts will be allowed to serve these “whole-grain-rich” food only half the time.
This waiver provision is important because if SNA has its way in Congress this year, that weaker whole grain standard will soon be in place nationwide, even for the 90% of schools already meeting the higher standard. A standard which, I’d like to remind everyone (for the four thousandth time) was set by the non-partisan Institute of Medicine to ensure the long-term health of America’s kids, approved in Congress in 2010 with bipartisan vote — and supported at the time by the SNA itself.
Apparently the majority of districts in North Carolina are planning to seek the waiver, in part because the current federal standard messes with a regional favorite: the white-flour buttermilk biscuit. From a piece written late last year:
Lynn Harvey, chief school nutrition services director for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said she heard complaints from many public school districts about the 100-percent whole grain requirement because the reformulation has affected a regional favorite.
“A biscuit is by definition light and fluffy. Whole-grain biscuits are hard, heavy and chewy,” Harvey said.
She said she expects the majority of North Carolina’s school districts to ask for the whole-grain exemption that Congress permitted in the cromnibus.
Now one of those North Carolina districts, the Haywood County school district, has succeeded in showing the requisite hardship, reportedly because participation in its program has dropped by five percent in recent years. This news was trumpeted yesterday by the SNA as the top story in its “Smart Brief” newsletter.
Both the SNA and Haywood Country are clearly viewing this turn of events as a victory. In fact, on April 1st, there will be a “big celebration” in Haywood County in which every student and staff member in the district will be receiving free biscuits and gravy. Thereafter, the white flour biscuits and white flour pasta macaroni and cheese (along with, presumably, other white-flour foods) will be returning to Haywood County lunch trays.
Now, I totally understand regional food loyalties and I love a good buttermilk biscuit as much as the next person. I’d even be fine with tweaking the school nutrition standards to allow districts to offer regional favorites like white tortillas or white biscuits on a limited basis, like once or twice a month. And maybe, if we’re lucky, that’s the way the current Congressional battle over whole grains will be resolved.
But here’s what’s so troubling to me about this biscuit story.
One only has to watch the local news coverage of the Haywood County waiver to understand that this isn’t just a fight about biscuits. Instead, it’s abundantly clear that the administrators in this district resent what they view as undue federal interference with their lunch program. One associate superintendent quoted in the news story says the current nutritional standards are “just an unnecessary set of regulations.” He adds, “Whole grains or ground grains — we’re not so sure that should be a federal regulation,” and suggests, “Let’s leave food selection to parents and let’s not try to manage that from Washington.”
I can’t help but point out the obvious disconnect here: when you’re already talking about a massive federal program like National School Lunch Program, it seems a little misplaced to be complaining about federal regulation of that program. But let’s say we do want to cede more local control to districts. What happens when we let local entities set child nutritional standards?
It doesn’t always go so well for the kids.
Here in Texas, our legislators actually passed a law in 2013 to try to keep the worst junk food in our schools. And our Big Government-hating new Agriculture Secretary is currently attempting to return deep fat fryers to our schools, an effort which scored big points for him on Fox News but might be a tad less beneficial for the 36% of kids in my state who are already overweight or obese.
Over in Georgia, where 35% of school kids are overweight or obese and where obesity is currently costing that state an estimated $2.4 billion annually, the school board succeeded in gutting the new “Smart Snacks in School” rules so that junk food can now be sold to kids one-half of the school year.
Meanwhile, in Haywood County, 61% of the adults were overweight or obese in 2013 and in 2011 (I could find no more recent data), 39% of its children were overweight or obese. The leading cause of death in the county is heart disease. In a 2010 community health survey, when asked what keeps people from being healthy in the county, the number one response was “unhealthy food.”
So when a Haywood County food services director declares in the news report that the federal government’s new nutrition standards are “backfiring,” I can’t help but ask: from a public health perspective, isn’t it actually the status quo in this county that’s backfiring?
Moreover, given the hostility these local officials seem to feel toward the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act standards, just how hard were these North Carolina school districts trying to make the standards work before asking for a waiver? Are they using the Smarter Lunchroom techniques, giving active encouragement to get kids to try new foods, offering student sampling programs, or implementing any of the other strategies being successfully used in hundreds of districts around the country?
The occasional biscuit is one thing and, as noted above, I’d have no problem with a change to the school food rules to allow such foods as a treat. I’d also be fine relaxing the whole grain rules for another year, if that’s what’s needed for manufacturers to tweak their grain formulations.
But if the SNA has its way in Congress this year, white flour foods will once again become prevalent in school meals, contradicting prevailing scientific guidance on child nutrition. In other words, the Haywood County model will soon be coming to a district near you.
And that, in my opinion, is hardly a development worthy of “celebration.”
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