My Own Letter to USDA re: The Competitive School Food Rules

by Bettina Elias Siegel on April 9, 2013

Well, nothing like waiting until the last minute. As I’ve been telling you all repeatedly, USDA’s deadline for submitting comments on the proposed competitive school food rules is 11:59 tonight, but I only just finished writing my own letter this morning!   :-)

I thought you all might be interested in reading my letter, the text of which is reproduced here:

April 9, 2013

Ms. Julie Brewer
Chief, Policy and Program Development Branch, Child Nutrition Division
Food and Nutrition Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture
P.O. Box 66874
Saint Louis, MO  63166

Docket ID: FNS-2011-0019

Re: National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program:  Nutrition Standards for All Foods Sold in School as Required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010

Dear Ms. Brewer:

I am the Chairperson of the Nutrition subcommittee of the School Health Advisory Council (SHAC) for Houston ISD, the nation’s seventh largest school district and the largest school district in Texas.  My colleague on the SHAC, Mike Pomeroy, has already submitted to this agency a letter on behalf of our entire SHAC outlining our collective comments on the proposed USDA competitive school food rules, all of which I endorse fully.  This letter is submitted in my personal capacity, as a parent of two children in Houston public schools and as the writer of The Lunch Tray, a blog focusing on food policy issues relating to children.

For the reasons well articulated in another letter submitted to this agency, written by Michele Simon and Andrew Kimbrell on behalf of the Center for Food Safety, I believe that our children would be better served if competitive foods and beverages were entirely eliminated from school campuses.  As that option is not currently under consideration by the agency, however, I list below my primary areas of concern with respect to the proposed rules: 

The “Naturally Occurring” Nutrients Standard May Be a Hollow One

I’ve long assumed that once this agency released its competitive food rules, the packaged food industry would simply work around those rules by reformulating existing snack foods to artificially fortify them with key nutrients.  I was therefore pleased to see that USDA hopes to “encourage consumption of whole foods or foods closer to their whole state . . . .”  by requiring that key nutrients be “naturally occurring.”

However, upon reflection, I’ve become concerned that even the “naturally occurring” standard could easily become a hollow one in the hands of the food industry.  To cite the agency’s own example, a food producer can add to its product a single natural ingredient for fortification purposes, such as nonfat dry milk powder for its calcium content, and the food will pass muster under the proposed rules.

But if the foods in question are highly processed, “better-for-you” junk foods —  “Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos with Calcium” –  the sale of such items still falls far afield of the agency’s laudable goal of encouraging children to enjoy more natural foods in their whole state.  Moreover, as USDA as anticipated — and as the School Nutrition Association has noted in its own comments on the proposal —  it will place an unreasonable burden on school districts to determine the source of various nutrients in a given packaged product, absent standardized labels offering this information.

Accordingly, I recommend that USDA simply drop this second, nutrient-only-based category of permissible foods.  If only fruits, vegetables, dairy products, protein foods, whole grain rich foods and combination foods are offered to schoolchildren, then we can rest assured that they will certainly be consuming a wide variety of nutrients, including the four nutrients of special concern:  calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and fiber.

Exempt Food-Based Fundraisers Should Be Limited — With USDA Oversight

Here in HISD and in many districts around the country, it is not uncommon to see on high school campuses numerous, daily fundraisers conducted during the lunch hour, most of which offer foods of poor nutritional value.  These sales greatly undermine participation in the federally subsidized school meal program, have a real and negative impact on student health and they undercut whatever nutrition information students are receiving in the classroom.

I understand that USDA will allow states to set their own limits on fundraisers offering foods and beverages which do not meet its proposed nutritional guidelines.  However, I’m concerned that cash-strapped school districts may successfully prevail upon states to grant liberal limits with respect to such fundraisers.  It is my recommendation, therefore, that the second of USDA’s two options be adopted, i.e., the option which allows for some USDA oversight on the frequency of such exempt, food-based fundraisers.

“A la Carte” Foods Should Be Treated Like All Other Competitive Food

It is distressing to see students in my district making their daily lunch from a la carte foods of relatively poor nutritional value.  I’m concerned, therefore, by the proposal which would exempt from the competitive food nutrition standards those a la carte items which have appeared on school menus within a set time period.

Pizza and fries offered as part of a balanced school meal are not problematic, but a child being able to regularly make lunch out of foods like pizza and fries – and nothing else –would undermine the goals of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.  I therefore urge USDA to hold a la carte foods to the same nutritional standards as other any competitive food, regardless of whether they are also served on school menus. 

Sports Drinks Have No Place in Schools

Finally, USDA is offering for comment two different calorie caps for beverages sold in high schools, one of which would permit the continued sale of sports drinks.  However, as USDA itself noted, the Institute of Medicine excludes sports drinks from both its Tier 1 and Tier 2 lists of beverages and only recognizes their value for “student athletes engaged in prolonged physical activity for ‘facilitating hydration, providing energy, and replacing electrolytes’  . . . . In these limited circumstances, IOM would endorse the decision of an athletic coach to make such drinks available.”

As noted in the letter submitted by the HISD SHAC, studies indicate that children are drinking sugar-sweetened sports drinks with greater frequency and in greater amounts than ever before.  Yet we know that children are not engaging in “prolonged physical activity” in greater numbers.  Accordingly, by IOM’s own standards – and at a time when  childhood obesity is a matter of serious concern — the widespread sale of sugar-sweetened sports drinks has no place in our schools.

*  *   *

Thank you for your consideration of these comments on the proposed competitive school food rules.

Respectfully submitted,

Bettina Elias Siegel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Rebecca April 9, 2013 at 12:10 pm

Love it. Great job! Thanks for letting them know your concerns. I am SO TIRED of seeing “field day” snacks for sale that consist of petroleum-based dyes, HFCS, and chemical preservatives! Not to mention “ice cream Fridays” with only dyed options for the kids, which only lessens their ability to learn and behave appropriately. *sigh* I hope schools wake up to this irony soon.

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Donna April 9, 2013 at 12:25 pm

You’re awesome! Thanks for fighting the good fight for all children.

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Nat April 9, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Fantastic letter, great job standing up and taking a stand on school nutrition. Obviously, this is a problem not only in TX but all over the country and your letter articulates just a few of the many issues schools/parents/kids are having to deal with.

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