Well, the other shoe has finally dropped.
Back in January, it looked as though the long-running and contentious fight over school food nutrition standards might finally come to an end. In its proposed 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) bill, the Senate Agriculture Committee managed to hammer out a bipartisan compromise that seemed to reasonably satisfy both health advocates and the School Nutrition Association (SNA) – no easy feat, given how heated the controversy had become.
Under the proposed Senate deal, schools would be given more flexibility in serving whole grains and further limits on sodium in school food would be temporarily halted – both wins for the SNA – but the improved nutrition standards of the 2010 CNR would mostly remain intact. It was, in my own words at the time, “a real victory for our kids.” (My exclusive interview with Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), ranking member of Senate Agriculture Committee, about the CNR compromise is here.)
But Republican House members, many of whom have been hostile to school food reform notably championed by Michelle Obama, had yet to propose their own CNR bill. It remained to be seen whether the House Education & the Workforce Committee might generally sign on to the Senate compromise or upset the apple cart by coming up with an entirely new proposal.
Yesterday, reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich revealed in Politico Pro (“House child nutrition bill swings for the fences” – paywall protected) that the apple cart hasn’t just been upset, it’s been run over by a truck. According to a 175-page discussion draft of the proposed House child nutrition bill, a copy of which was exclusively obtained by Politico, the bill may be, in Evich’s words, “everything health advocates feared.”
To summarize, Politico reports that the House bill would:
- seek a wholesale review of the current, improved nutrition standards relating to whole grains and sodium (whereas the Senate bill would keep these standards essentially intact, with some modification);
- block any future sodium reductions in school meals;
- allow any item that may be served on the lunch line to also be sold a la carte. This may sound innocuous, but such a change would allow kids to buy items like pizza and fries on a daily basis, without the accompanying fruits, vegetables and other foods which nutritionally round out a school meal;
- make it harder for schools to qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows them to serve free meals to all students, by reportedly increasing the threshold of “Identified Students” needed to qualify for CEP from 40 percent to 60 percent. This change could significantly reduce needy kids’ access to free school meals;
- weaken, if not eliminate (more details needed) the application of the Smart Snacks nutritional standards to school fundraisers, which would greatly increase the amount of junk food available on school campuses; and
- allow all forms of produce (including canned and frozen) in the fruit and vegetable snack program, which now only allows fresh produce to be served. (More on the intense controversy surrounding that proposed change here.)
The bill also reportedly weakens or eliminates the paid meal equity requirement, another SNA priority.
On the plus side for health advocates, Politico reports that the bill would:
- preserve the requirement that kids take at least a half-cup of fruit or vegetables at lunch – a somewhat surprising result given how strongly the SNA has opposed this provision;
- increase the amount of money schools receive for serving breakfast. School food professionals have long complained that the improved breakfast standards required them to serve more fruit, but they were given no additional funding with which to do so. (See my recent Civil Eats piece for more on how this underfunding has resulted in excessively sugary school breakfasts.)
Congressional Democrats and Obama administration officials haven’t yet seen the House bill, but they apparently aren’t happy with what they know about it.
Politico quotes Kevin Concannon, the USDA under secretary who oversees childhood nutrition programs, as calling the House proposals “frankly regressive in not keeping children’s best interests in mind,” while Senator Stabenow said she was “deeply concerned” that the House didn’t choose to use the Senate compromise, which took months to hammer out, as the basis for its own bill.
Stabenow also predicted a deadlock that could further delay passage of the already-long-overdue 2015 CNR, telling Politico: “If folks do try to go backwards, there just won’t be a bill, I can assure you.”
I’ll share the actual text of the draft House bill, along with further analysis and commentary, as soon as it’s publicly released.
Do you love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Follow TLT on Facebook and Twitter! You can also subscribe to Lunch Tray posts, and be sure to download my FREE 40-page guide, “How to Get Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom.”