A Recap of This Week’s Congressional Hearing on Child Nutrition

capitol buildingThose of you following my Twitter and Facebook feeds know that on Wednesday I was watching with great interest the House Education and Workforce Committee‘s Congressional hearing on the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR).

To bring everyone up to speed, this year marks the every-five-year funding of federal child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program.  The 2010 CNR saw the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), the landmark legislation which gave school meals their first major nutritional overhaul in decades.  But this year, the HHFKA’s gains are threatened as the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which supported the law in 2010, now seeks to roll back some of its most important nutritional standards.

For those who really want to get into the weeds, here’s a complete video of the hearing:

For those who want the recap, school food reformer Dana Woldow had this piece in yesterday’s Beyond Chron, which is highly critical of SNA President Julia Bauscher’s testimony at the hearing.

Woldow points out, as I did on Twitter, that the SNA completely squandered its opportunity to seek more funding from Congress to finance healthier school meals, instead pushing hard for a weakening of nutritional standards.  In doing so, the SNA confirmed my suspicion (Is the School Nutrition Association’s Request for More School Funding a Priority — or a Ploy? ) that its “ask” for an additional 35 cents per child per meal was never going to be a real priority for the organization.

Other random impressions from the hearing:

1.  I had not been aware of Virginia First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe’s work surrounding the healthier school meal standards.  She did a great job testifying at the hearing and is officially my new girl crush.

2.  At the other end of the spectrum, I was stunned by Rep. Glenn Grothman’s  (R-WI) cluelessness about the hard realities of some Americans’ lives.

First, he seemed incapable of wrapping his head around the idea that America could have a problem with childhood hunger and childhood obesity, repeatedly asking those testifying for historical data on the height and weight of five year olds to help explain this mystery.  He mused aloud, “Some of us kind of wonder. . . . we talk about this obesity epidemic and then we say we have this problem with all these people are [sic] hungry. At first blush it’s kind of contradictory.” McAuliffe quickly set him straight, pointing out that obesity, particularly in food deserts, can be as much a sign of malnutrition as being underweight.

Grothman, who seems to have wandered out of 1955 suburbia, also seemed perplexed that kids aren’t just sitting down to family meals with Mom and Dad instead of relying on schools for nutrition.  In this meandering statement, he asked:

I’ll give you another thing to think about. A while back I read something dealing with some of these food programs and that we’re kinda, it used to be it was important for kids to sit around the dinner table at night, I think it’s an important thing to sit around the breakfast table in the morning.  As time goes on it becomes more, where we’re sending a message to parents that it’s more of a government’s concern than their concern.  Does that concern you at all, insofar as you know were kind of taking away a role that’s been the most basic role of parents probably throughout all of history and kind of we’re kinda saying providing breakfast for your kids, dinner for your kids, during the summer period.  We’re beginning to change the nature of life and we’re making it more of a government thing than a  family thing.  Does that —

At this point, Mr. Grothman’s time (mercifully) was cut off.

3.  SNA President Bauscher kept emphasizing the need to supply kids with white flour “regional favorites,” like biscuits in the South and white flour tortillas in the Southwest, as a justification for significantly weakening the current whole grain standard.  But any home cook knows that it’s entirely possible to make an acceptable whole-grain version of those foods using half white flour and half white whole wheat.  If manufacturers need more time to get up to speed, then maybe we need to relax the standard for short time until they catch up.  But SNA’s “baby with the bathwater” approach is so extreme, it does make me wonder if Woldow is right when she speculates that SNA’s corporate sponsors are actually behind this whole grain request.

On a related note, Mission Readiness, the nonpartisan group of retired military leaders, wrote an excellent Reuters editorial  in anticipation of this week’s CNR hearing.  It’s a full-throated defense of healthier school food and well worth a read.

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An Encouraging School Food Story From Maine

Earlier this week, I received this lovely email:

Hello Bettina,

Our entire office follows your blog, we love your perspective and energy.

Your recent posts inspired us to send an opinion piece to our our local paper, which resulted in today’s front page story about Maine’s successful implementation the current nutrition standards.

We just wanted to pass along and share our support for the standards.

Sincerely,

The Let’s Go! team

Please take a minute to read the Portland Press Herald article and learn about Let’s Go!, a public/private partnership of health organizations helping Maine successfully implement — and exceed — the new federal school meal standards.

From the Portland Press Herald:

So far about 93,000 schoolchildren, more than half the total public school population in Maine, are eating Let’s Go! lunches that exceed federal nutrition standards. Compared with the national average, Maine has more than triple the percentage of schools that have achieved a “U.S. Healthier Schools” designation – meaning schools that served meals well above the federal nutrition minimums.

Accounts like these (and my post on Monday about the USDA Team Up program) show that successfully meeting the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act standards is entirely possible when schools receive adequate support.  So let’s put our effort into finding and funding that support — instead of rolling back the nutritional standards which improve kids health.

Thanks to the Let’s Go team for taking the time to write and sharing your story.  You made my day!  :-)

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My Interview With USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon

Back in November, I was contacted by a Public Affairs Specialist at USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services asking me if I’d like to conduct a 15-minute phone interview with USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon.  Given that Mr. Concannon’s job includes overseeing federal child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program, I was very excited to take advantage of this unexpected opportunity.

usda logoA few days later, I was told to email my questions in advance of the call.  I knew this would take some of the spontaneity out of the phone conversation, but I nonetheless complied.  Some time later I received the news that there would be no phone call with Mr. Concannon after all, and instead I would receive his written answers to my questions.  Then, over a month after I was first contacted by USDA, I received a set of written responses which at first I was told to attribute only to an “unnamed USDA spokesperson.”  When I expressed my surprise at this condition, I was told that a mistake had been made and that I am allowed to attribute the answers to the Under Secretary. When I asked whether he wrote the answers himself, I was told that he reviewed and approved them.

I’m sharing all of this background because the end result of this interview process is not quite what I had hoped for.  In particular, the answer to the first (and, to my mind, most important) question was not particularly responsive, but due to the changed format I was unable to ask any follow-up questions.  Nonetheless, I do want to express my sincere appreciation for the initial offer to interview the Under Secretary, the time spent by USDA staff preparing the answers and the time taken by the Under Secretary to review them.

Here is the Q&A:

TLT:   I and many of my readers are very concerned about current attempts to weaken school food standards.  What do you think the fate of the HHFKA standards will be, both after the FY2015 appropriations process [Ed. Note: by the time I received the answer to this question, the appropriations process was concluded] and the CNR [Child Nutrition Reauthorization] in the coming year?  What, if anything, is the USDA currently doing to defend the current standards?   And do you think there’s anything we parents can do, or is this now out of the hands of ordinary citizens?

Under Secretary Concannon:  The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has made a difference across our nation, with more than 90 percent of schools certified as adhering to the healthier standards and students receiving more nutritious meals as a result. These changes are working, and we expect to see continued improvements over time. Change can be difficult for anyone in any situation; we know that the generational changes we are seeking take time to implement.

We will continue to work with State and local partners to provide training and technical assistance to schools so they are equipped with tools and resources needed to prepare and serve meals and snacks that meet the new standards, and more importantly are accepted and consumed by students. We are also listening closely to feedback from schools as they implement these changes, and have provided policy flexibilities as a result. We will continue on this path. Our goal is to ensure the next generation has access to nutritious foods, along with proper education about healthy eating.

Parents have many opportunities to be involved in promoting and supporting the new standards. We encourage parents to work with their school district and local school wellness committee and learn more about the child nutrition initiatives and opportunities in their school. They may also become involved through the local PTO/PTA, participating in school board meetings, or volunteering in other capacities at school. Parent and student input can be an important tool for school food service operators to successfully implement the standards and provide acceptable meals that students will consume.

TLT:  As you’re likely aware, I and a fellow advocate, Nancy Huehnegarth, are leading a campaign to keep chicken processed in China from being used in all federal child nutrition programs, including the NSLP.  [Ed. note: by the time this question was answered, Nancy and I had already declared victory.] Our Change.org petition currently has over 328,000 signatures in support of this goal. Given China’s abysmal food safety record and the fact that no USDA inspectors will be on site, do you share our concerns about feeding kids chicken processed in that country?

Under Secretary Concannon:  USDA is committed to ensuring that food served through the National School Lunch Program is both healthy and safe. Chicken provided to schools through the USDA Foods program is required to be processed in the United States per program regulations. Further, the substitution of non-domestic product is not allowed for any USDA Foods product. Schools can also purchase chicken items for their school meal service outside of USDA foods, from a variety of commercial vendors. The Buy American provision requires that for commercially-purchased foods, schools utilize foods where a substantial amount (51% or more) of the final processed product consists of domestically grown products. Schools with concerns about receiving products processed to any degree outside the United States may elect to draft their bid specifications to specifically request that their chicken products be processed 100% domestically. As a result of the fiscal year 2015 appropriations directive recently passed by Congress, the USDA is working with state agencies to provide additional guidance.

It is also important to know that all domestic and imported poultry must meet rigorous USDA standards before it can reach the public.  USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has a stringent inspection system in place, which includes increased inspections at port-of-entry and annual audits of China’s system for processed chicken. The Food and Nutrition Service will continue to ensure State compliance with all applicable statutes and laws, including the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, as we work to ensure the provision of nutritious school meals to children across America.

TLT:  The Smart Snacks rules have been a huge step forward in getting junk food off of school campuses.  However, as you know, when the rules were in draft form, the USDA floated two competing proposals for “exempt fundraisers.”  In the first proposal, states would have had to seek USDA approval of whatever maximum number they chose, while in the second proposal, states would be given complete discretion, with no federal oversight.  The USDA opted for the latter, and now some states are exploiting this loophole to the fullest.  For example, Georgia recently voted to allow its schools to hold 30 junk food fundraisers a year, each lasting up to three days, which means any junk food may be sold to Georgia kids during the school day for fully one-half of the school year.  What do you think about states like Georgia and, in retrospect, does the USDA now regret giving states so much autonomy?

Under Secretary Concannon:  USDA thoughtfully considered and responded to public input on the Smart Snacks in School proposal, resulting in even stronger standards. USDA received nearly 250,000 stakeholder comments from parents, teachers, school food service professionals, and the food and beverage industry. Based on that feedback, the rule carefully balances science-based nutrition standards with practical and workable solutions to promote healthier eating on campus. As a result, USDA has provided flexibility for states to manage fundraisers at the state level. This is a local decision, as USDA understands that fundraisers are time-honored traditions that support local school activities, including class trips, athletic programs and the purchase of school supplies. States also have the flexibility to modify their fundraising policy at any time during the school year should they wish to do so, or in future years. USDA/FNS has been and will continue to work with our  State partners to reach out to schools and other stakeholders in the school community to provide training, technical assistance and resources to ensure that they understand the new rules, and have the tools and information they need to succeed.

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What the “CRomnibus” Spending Bill Means for School Food

Cream DoughnutTo fund the federal government and avoid a government shutdown, while also specially carving out funding for the Department of Homeland Security,* this week Congress is on track to pass the so-called “CRomnibus” — a combination of a continuing resolution and an omnibus spending bill.  (I thought I was the only person who, upon hearing “CRomnibus” could only think of a “cronut,” but apparently I’m not alone.)

Worked into the CRomnibus are several important provisions regarding school meals.

First, as you know if you’ve been reading this blog or following news reports, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, has long been fighting to allow school districts to entirely opt-out of the new, healthier school meal standards for one year if they can show prior financial distress in meeting those standards.  This so-called “waiver” provision has been enthusiastically supported by the School Nutrition Association (SNA), the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals, despite the fact that the SNA supported these same healthy nutritional standards when they were first adopted.

The good news is that the waiver provision did not make it into the CRomnibus, which means that, as of now at least, schools must continue to abide by all of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’s regulations, including the hotly contested provision which currently requires students to take 1/2 cup of fruits or vegetables with their lunch instead of being able to pass those foods by.

However, the SNA and House Republicans were still able to work some of their desired provisions into the bill.  Specifically, school districts which can demonstrate hardship in meeting the HHFKA’s new, 100% “whole-grain-rich” standard (which requires that all grain foods served contain at least 51% whole grain) will not be penalized for failing to meet this standard.  It’s not yet clear, however, how schools are to make this showing of hardship, and in any case they’ll still need to meet the lower standard of 50% of grain foods being “whole grain rich.”  In addition, the CRomnibus language freezes current levels of sodium in school meals until the USDA can demonstrate that scheduled, further reductions in sodium are beneficial to children’s health.

But before anyone concludes that the battle over school meal standards is now over, it’s important to remember that absence of the controversial waiver language in the CRomnibus only reflects the fact that the Senate is still controlled by Democrats, which will no longer be true come January.  And next year also marks the every-five-year re-funding of federal child nutrition programs, commonly known as the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, or the CNR.  That’s when the war over school meals will heat up considerably, and I’ll have more thoughts in the coming weeks on what parents can do to help preserve healthier nutrition standards.  (In the meantime, I’ll link to my New York Times piece from October, “As Lobbyists and Politicians Shout It Out Over School Lunch, Can Parents Be Heard?”)

And now let’s turn to the issue of Chinese-processed chicken in school meals.  As you know, I and my colleague Nancy Huehnergarth started a Change.org petition seeking to prevent the use of such poultry in all federal child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program, due to serious concerns about China’s food safety record.  As of today, almost 330,000 people have joined us in this effort, and we are beyond pleased to report that — thanks to the efforts of Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Chellie Pingree (D-ME) — the CRomnibus currently contains this language:

SEC. 736. None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to procure processed poultry products imported into the United States from the People’s Republic of China for use in the school lunch program under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (42 U.S.C. 1751 et seq.), the Child and Adult Food Care Program under section 17 of such Act (42 U.S.C. 1766), the Summer Food Service Program for Children under section 13 of such Act (42 U.S.C. 1761), or the school breakfast program under the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 (4223 U.S.C. 1771 et seq.).

It’s our hope that this language will go unchallenged and appear in the final bill to be signed into law by President Obama.  We will of course keep you posted, and thank you all for your support of this important campaign.

_____

* This relates to the fight between Congressional Republicans and President Obama over immigration; you can read more here.

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#Thanks4RealMichelleObama

You may have already heard about a new Twitter hashtag that’s making national news: disgruntled kids are taking photos of their unappetizing school lunches and sharing them on Twitter with a sarcastic #thanksmichelleobama.  A recent Buzz Feed post about the trend has already received an astonishing two million views.

Some of the photos shared by students are indeed stomach-turning.  This one in particular has received a lot of attention, for obvious reasons:

gross lunch
click on the photo to enlarge

I have a few things to say about all this:

  • First, a word to the kids tweeting these photos.  Um, guys, you know Michelle Obama’s not actually in your school kitchen, right?  The First Lady supports common sense nutrition standards, like “kids need more fruits and vegetables,” but she has nothing to do with school menus (that would be your district) and she’s never instructed anyone to put disgusting glop on your tray.  Whoever prepared the travesty pictured above probably should be publicly shamed — but that person isn’t Michelle Obama.
  • This isn’t the first time photos of unappetizing school food have gone viral; last year I wrote a post (“School Food Gets Its Close-Up, But Is It a Fair One?”) about another, similar campaign.  Kids griping about school food is a time-honored tradition that’s likely been going on for as long as we’ve had school food, and certainly well before we had cell phones, but that doesn’t mean all school meals are bad.  In fact, some are pretty great.
  • As I wrote in the post mentioned above, if you’re using a cell phone camera to make food look as disgusting as possible, you’re likely to succeed.  Even when I use my cell phone camera to make food look good, I sometimes fail miserably. Here’s an Indian dinner I once cooked for my family including chana masala, whole wheat naan, homemade raita and chutney:

IMG_2561

You’ll have to take my word for it when I say this meal was delicious, but I’m guessing few of you would want to try it based on this photo.  And you can imagine how much worse this nutritious, home-cooked and mostly organic meal would have looked slopped onto a styrofoam tray and photographed under a cafeteria’s fluorescent lights, especially if the photographer were trying to make it look terrible.

  • Here’s another example.  This #thanksmichelleobama photo appeared in the New York Daily News and many other outlets and, at first glance, it looks awful.
click on the photo to enlarge
click on the photo to enlarge

But if you take a minute, you’ll realize you’re looking at some pretty benign refried beans with melted cheese, next to a tortilla.  I happen to live in Tex-Mex country and can tell you that no extreme close-up of refried beans (especially when served with an ice-cream scoop) is ever going to look much better than that.

  • But what annoys me most about the #thanksmichelleobama hashtag is how, predictably, it’s been seized upon by some on the political right in their never-ending campaign to demonize the First Lady for – gasp! – supporting science-based nutritional standards for school food.  These standards were not her creation; rather, they were recommended by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and are considered the “gold standard for evidence-based health analysis.” And, by the way, when Congress authorized the USDA to improve school food (which led the USDA to commission the IOM report), the sitting president at the time wasn’t Democrat Barack Obama.  It was Republican George W. Bush.

Now let me tell you why I’m saying, without a trace of sarcasm and with profound gratitude, #Thanks4RealMichelleObama:

  • In 2010, Congress passed the most sweeping overhaul of school food in decades, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).  That landmark event might not have happened without the First Lady’s determined and vocal support of the law in the months leading up to its passage.
  • Under the HHFKA, kids are now being served less sodium, fat and sugar and more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, all of which is consistent with those IOM recommendations.  Those changes are critical if this and future generations are to reverse current trends toward obesity and diet-related disease.
  • According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, “Our nation’s schools and schoolchildren are thriving under the new standards. School lunch revenue is up.”
  • A recent Harvard School of Public Health study showed that kids are now eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch — and that figure is likely to go up significantly as the new standards become more familiar to students over time.
  • A peer-reviewed study in Childhood Obesity found that, after initial complaints, kids now actually like the healthier school food.  It also found that among socioeconomically disadvantaged schools (where school meals are of obvious, critical importance), administrators perceived that “more students were buying lunch and that students were eating more of the meal than in the previous year.”
  • Under the HHFKA’s direct certification and community eligibility provisions, more economically disadvantaged kids than ever now have easy access to school food, which for many is their primary source of daily nutrition.

If you’re a Twitter user and agree that these significant accomplishments are worthy of some gratitude, please click here to automatically send this message to the First Lady, or use my hashtag #Thanks4RealMichelleObama with your own text:

Thanks @FLOTUS for championing healthier school food for all kids! http://ctt.ec/X418t+   #Thanks4RealMichelleObama #thanksmichelleobama

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 9,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join over 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing here. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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My Piece in the New York Times Motherlode Re: The School Food Wars

This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine will feature a major story on school food, “How School Lunch Became the Latest Political Battleground,” and I was honored to be asked to interview the Times reporter, Nicholas Confessore, for a piece on today’s New York Times Motherlode.

Sarah Anne Ward for The New York Times
Sarah Anne Ward for The New York Times

For those of you who regularly follow this blog and other sources of school food news, the broad outlines of Confessore’s story will be all too familiar.  His piece traces the evolution of the School Nutrition Association, the largest organization of school food professionals, from one-time supporter of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to its current role as a vocal critic of school food reform on Capitol Hill.  It’s also a richly detailed, if depressing, behind-the-scenes account of how Big Food’s lobbying dollars and the rancorous atmosphere in Congress have made healthy school food, once supported by both sides of the aisle, a deeply partisan issue.

Lost in the shuffle, though, are the kids who actually eat school food and, by extension, the parents of those children.  So in today’s Motherlode piece I ask Confessore what, if anything, parents can do to be heard on this issue over the powerful voices of lobbyists and politicians.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts, too, either in a comment here or on the Motherlode post.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 9,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join over 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing here. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Houston ISD to Provide Universal (Free) Meals at 166 Schools

I’m back from summer vacation in time to share some nice news:  Houston ISD, the seventh largest district in the country, has announced that it’s taking advantage of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) to provide universal (free) school breakfast and lunch to every student at 166 of its schools, regardless of economic status, and without the need for meal applications or other paperwork.  These schools represent approximately 55% of the total number of schools in our district, with an estimated combined population of over 100,000 students, and the free meals will become available when our school year begins a week from today.

The Community Eligibility Provision means school meals are free for all
The Community Eligibility Provision means school meals are free for all

The CEP was one of the less publicized gains of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), allowing schools to provide universal meals to an entire school based on “direct certification” data, such as how many children live in households receiving food stamps (SNAP benefits), without also requiring annual paper applications submitted by parents.  The CEP program has been rolled out gradually since 2011, starting in Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan, then expanding to D.C., New York, Ohio, and West Virginia, and last year including Maryland, Massachusetts, Florida, and Georgia. The option is now open to all schools around the country, but they must apply by August 31st to implement the program this coming year.

The CEP is strongly supported by anti-hunger groups such as Project Bread and No Kid Hungry because it accomplishes several important goals, including reducing administrative burdens on parents and districts, targeting needy populations and increasing meal participation, especially at breakfast.  That in turn can lead to higher academic performance and improved classroom behavior, as children who aren’t distracted by hunger pains are clearly in a better position to learn.

The CEP also has the added benefit of reducing social stigma in the cafeteria, a very real problem that often prevents kids who qualify for free and reduced price lunch from actually eating those needed meals.  Some of you may remember my 2011 Lunch Tray post (“Social Media and Social Stigma on the Lunch Line“) in which I reported that students in HISD were taking cell phone pictures of kids standing in the federally reimbursed school meal line, then sharing these photos on social media with disparaging comments.  Not surprisingly, many students were willing to skip lunch rather than risk this kind of exposure.  But when meals are “free for all,” regardless of economic status, any stigma associated with eating a school meal is lessened or eliminated.*

Pursuing the CEP is not always an easy sell for food services departments, since other district administrators are long accustomed to relying on data from paper meal applications for the purposes of receiving funding under Title I and other programs.  But that data overlap isn’t an insurmountable problem (the USDA has issued a guidance document to help districts sort through the issue) and taking advantage of the CEP makes good sense in a district like ours, where over 80% of our children live close enough to the poverty line to qualify for school meal assistance.

So, kudos to HISD for making it happen.  And it will be interesting to see how many other districts around the country take advantage of the CEP this year, now that it’s open to all.  I’ll share that information here when it becomes available.

________

*Of course, as Matt Breunig recently noted in Salon, stigma in the lunchroom is likely to be even worse at schools where the number of poor kids is outweighed by the number of paying kids, and those schools would not qualify for the CEP.  For this reason and others, advocates like Janet Poppendieck and Alice Waters support universal free lunch at every school, which is the practice in many other countries around the world.  But as much as I, too, support this idea, I don’t believe it can gain widespread political traction in this country, at least for the foreseeable future.  So far, it’s been impossible to obtain adequate Congressional funding even for the current meal program, and I suspect that using taxpayer dollars to provide meals to those who could otherwise afford them would be abhorrent to many Americans, even those who aren’t inherently distrustful of sweeping government programs.

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An Update on (What Else?) the School Lunch Fight

SNA logoYesterday, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) held a conference call to defend its support of a legislative amendment which would allow struggling school districts to opt out of healthier school meal standards.  Such waivers would be for only one year but the amendment, if passed, is widely seen as a first step in chipping away permanently at the nutritional advances of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).

The SNA call featured eight school food service directors who described how various HHFKA provisions have negatively impacted their programs.  Most of the complaints were by now familiar – namely, increased cost, reduced revenue and food waste, with “it’s not nutrition unless the child eats it” a frequent refrain.  But one or two speakers offered more novel arguments, such as increased stigma for children on free and reduced price lunch (when paying students leave the program) and attempting to draw a connection between California’s drought and wasted fruits and vegetables.

I didn’t doubt the sincerity of the speakers or the accuracy of the data they presented, but, like many school food advocates, I continue to be disappointed that SNA seeks a roll-back of healthier meal standards as the solution.  When asked by a reporter why SNA has not instead sought increased funding from Congress, SNA CEO Patti Montague offered the same response I received months ago from SNA spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavner, i.e., that the SNA “was told”  that such a request was a nonstarter on Capitol Hill.

A few points in particular caught my attention during the call:

  • In defending the SNA’s desire to return to “offer versus serve,” i.e., the old system in which kids could choose (or not choose) to take fruits and vegetables at lunch, one school food director said “we trained them to make healthy choices [under OVS] but now we’re forcing them to take items they will not eat.”  Does anyone else see a disconnect there?  If the kids were enthusiastically taking fruits and vegetables under the old system, why is it a problem that those foods are now required meal components?
  • Two of the food service directors complained that new sodium requirements will keep schools from serving turkey or roasted chicken sandwiches on whole grain bread as “a la carte” items.  That does seem unreasonable, but I’d be interested to know what percentage of a la carte (snack bar) revenue nationwide is currently derived from the sale of healthful turkey sandwiches, versus relatively non-nutritive foods like chips and other salty snacks?  This sounds to me like the spurious “hard boiled egg” talking point all over again, but I’m open to receiving any data to the contrary.
  • SNA CEO Montague, in attempting to correct what she described as gross inaccuracies in the media, said it’s a “fallacy” that 60 to 70 percent of the SNA’s funding comes from food industry sponsorships.  Instead, the correct figure is . . . 50 percent.  Somehow that clarification didn’t reassure me that the food industry has no influence over SNA’s legislative agenda.
  • A reporter mentioned that many of the districts she’d spoken to in Minnesota were not having any particular difficulty meeting the healthier standards.  The SNA reply (and I’m sorry that my notes don’t reflect the particular speaker) was rather surprising: “If they’re not asking for relief, it’s because they don’t know what’s ahead of them.”  In other words, only an ignorant or incompetent school food service director could possibly oppose SNA’s agenda.  On behalf of the many districts around the country which are successfully meeting the current meal requirements and are fully prepared to meet the forthcoming ones, I found that statement insulting.
  • I asked CEO Montague for comment on the fact that 19 past SNA presidents have taken the rather extraordinary step of publicly breaking rank with the organization by urging Congress to reject the waiver amendment.  Montague’s reply was that “only the board speaks for the organization and they [the 19 past presidents] aren’t speaking to the members.” When I asked in a follow-up if she could explain the cause of this obvious rift in the organization, she simply said, “We don’t know,” followed by a long silence.

On that latter point, I’m due to speak today with one of the 19 past SNA presidents who signed the letter to Congress.  If he/she agrees to be interviewed on the record, I’ll certainly share our conversation here.

And now a few other items to keep you abreast of the school meal controversy:

Debate on Waiver Continues in the House

Yesterday marked the beginning of House debate on the waiver language, with Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) seeking to strip the waiver from the House spending bill.  He was joined in the fight by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), along with chef Tom Colicchio.  More here.  As of last night, no vote had been taken.

White House Threatens Veto

In a statement issued on Tuesday, White House threatened to veto the spending bill if it contains the school meal waiver, saying that such a bill would be “a major step backwards for the health of American children by undermining the effort to provide kids with more nutritious food.”

Senate Holds First Child Nutrition Reauthorization Hearing Today

The Senate Agriculture Committee will hold its first hearing today on the 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization, well ahead of schedule and no doubt in response to the roiling school food debate.  Details at Obama Foodorama.

fed upFed Up Producers Make a Special Delivery to Congress

To coincide with debate on the waiver, Laurie David and Stephanie Soechtig, co-producers of the new documentary film “Fed Up,” delivered red and blue M&M’s to the 29 House members who voted in favor of the waiver in committee last week.  In a statement, the producers said of these legislators:

They might be out on the town today enjoying a leafy salad, followed by a leisurely trip to the Congressional gym, but once they get back to their office they’ll have a reminder on their desk that the policies they support would give kids garbage to eat five days a weeks, 200 days a year.

More here.

[Ed Update: This post was updated on 6/12/14 at 10:15 CST to add mention of the Senate CNR hearing.]

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How Did the School Nutrition Association Lose Its Way?

How did the School Nutrition Association, the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals, go from being a vocal supporter of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to the moving force behind current efforts to gut that legislation?

Even the First Lady finds this flip-fop perplexing, reportedly saying at a recent gathering of school nutrition leaders, “Help me understand why, especially given the fact that the School Nutrition Association worked to pass the original changes in the nutrition standards. … If anyone can help me understand how we wound up here.”

Now two new articles shed some light on that question.  Jerry Hagstrom’s piece in the National Journal, “It’s Time to Protect School-Cafeteria Workers From Their Own Food Fight,” and Helena Bottemiller Evich’s piece on Politico, “First Lady vs. Lunch Ladies: Behind the Scenes,” both describe dramatic changes in SNA’s top leadership and platform, changes which are causing considerable dissension among SNA’s membership.

This background helps explain why 19 past SNA presidents recently took the highly unusual step of publicly breaking with their own organization to urge Congress not to roll-back healthier school food standards.  It’s also quite encouraging to me, as a school food advocate, to learn that SNA’s troubling positions are not necessarily shared by the organization’s members at large.

It remains to be seen if SNA’s efforts to weaken school meal standards are successful, something we may not be able to fully assess until the Child Nutrition Reauthorization is completed in 2015.  But developments like the past presidents’ letter, press reports like the ones above, and now-frequent discussions in the media of the organization’s ties to Big Food, all may leave the SNA wishing it never picked this food fight in the first place.

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[Ed Update 6/4/14:  The Politico link was changed to give readers access to the free version of the story.]

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Kathleen Parker on School Lunches: It’s All The Feminists’ Fault

Last Friday, conservative Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote an editorial praising the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) current attempts to roll back the nutritional improvements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), derisively referring to the legislation as “the first lady’s well-intentioned but disastrous school nutrition program, otherwise known as the Dumpster Derby.”

In this regard, Parker is no different from any other conservative pundit or Republican House member persuaded by the SNA’s reports of increased food waste and student rejection of healthier food (reports strongly disputed by many respected school food service directors) to justify a return to daily pizza and fries.

But where Parker really made my head spin is her apparent belief that the entire National School Lunch Program is in place because mothers — specifically feminist mothers — just can’t be bothered to pack a nutritious lunch from home.  To wit:

Obama is merely expanding her maternal focus to include all those public school kids whose mothers apparently have forgotten how to make a sandwich. Or whose fathers have forgotten to say, “Get those plugs out of your ears and make friends with the lawn mower” — or whatever its urban equivalent.

. . . .  and this is where I wish this debate were heading — Mrs. Obama could suggest that parents prepare their children’s meals.

What?! You’ve got to be kidding! We’re too busy!!

Since when were we too busy to scramble an egg or toast a slice of bread? Since the national narrative of women’s liberation concentrated on the kitchen as metaphor for homebound drudgery and oppression, that’s when.

Parker does give a throwaway nod to poor people — “When it comes to home food preparation, the very poor need extra help, obviously” — but then reasserts the notion that “quality nutrition, as most important things, begins at home.”

So, in sum, Parker apparently believes that the majority of children participating in the NSLP come from stable, two-parent households (replete with fancy electronics, lawns, lawn mowers and well-stocked kitchens) and if only mom’s pretty little head hadn’t been muddled by pesky feminists, those children would all be heading out the door with a nutritious, home-packed lunch.

I’m so dumbfounded by this thinking, I don’t quite know what to say.

Let’s start with a simple recitation of the facts:

  • According to the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) the latest USDA data indicate that 15.8 million (21.6 percent) children live in households “facing a constant struggle against hunger.” And “in Gallup surveys taken between 2008 and 2012, 23.5 percent of households with children responded that there were times in the past year when they did not have enough money to buy food that they needed.”
  • On a typical school day in 2011-12, 19.6 million children, or a full 68 percent of those participating in school meals, received received free or reduced price lunches, and that figure has since increased. To qualify for free lunches this past year, a family of four must be living at 130% of the poverty level, or earning no more than $30,615.  To receive reduced price lunch, a family of four must be earning between $30,615 and $43,568.*
  • One significant gain brought about by the HHFKA is that districts can now”directly certify” the very neediest children for free and reduced price meals, without the need for paperwork, if these children are “homeless, runaway, and migrant children and children from households that receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR).”  In the 2012-13 school year, 12.3 million children met one or more of these criteria and received direct certification.

And even the SNA, on which Parker happily relies in dismissing the need for healthier school food, fully recognizes the critical role of the NSLP in feeding America’s hungry children.  In its 2008 report, “Saved By The Lunch Bell: As Economy Sinks, School Nutrition Program Participation Rises,” the SNA wrote:

The school nutrition programs are more important than ever, as more students participate in the free and reduced price categories. Nationwide, school nutrition programs serve as safety nets for families that are facing financial difficulties as the economy falters.

In other words, children fortunate enough to have moms who could easily pack a nutritious lunch (but for their feminist ideology) are not the intended beneficiaries of the NSLP.  Instead, the program is intended to serve the millions of impoverished American children whose parents cannot send them to school with a home-packed lunch for a whole host of possible reasons that never seem to cross Parker’s mind: the family’s SNAP benefits fail to cover a month’s worth of healthful food, in light of today’s rising food costs; there is only one parent in the household and he or she works one or more jobs and is not home to pack a lunch; one or both caretakers are drug-addicted, mentally ill, physically disabled or otherwise unable to adequately provide for their children; the family lives in a homeless shelter and lacks access to kitchen facilities; the family lives in a food desert where healthful groceries are scarce, etc. etc.

These are not families, in other words, in which mom is just too focused on her career at a high-powered law firm to get out the peanut butter and jelly each morning.  And when it comes to these children, who are so dependent on school meals for daily nutrition, it’s incontestable that they are better served by the HHFKA’s healthier school food mandates than by the SNA’s current desire to return to foods higher in white flour and sodium, fruits and vegetables that kids are able to spurn on a daily basis, and school snack bars replete with pizza and fries.

My goodness!  The solution to childhood hunger has been hiding right here in my Fridgidaire!
My goodness! The solution to childhood hunger has been hiding right here in my Frigidaire!

But maybe Parker’s “Leave it to Beaver” thinking should come as no surprise.  Back in 2011 on this blog, I took issue with another Parker WashPo editorial, this one arguing that the federal government should have no role in solving the obesity crisis. Parker once again harkened back to some earlier, simpler time, and concluded that, “[a]s with most problems, the solution is family:”

Ma would say: “Sit up and eat your vegetables.” Pa said: “Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

Other common utterances included: “Go outside and play.” And, “After you finish your chores.”

Families may not have been happier . . . but neither were the words “childhood obesity” part of the vernacular.

That’s right.  The historic rise in childhood obesity has absolutely nothing to do with: federal corn subsidies which unnaturally render junk food and fast food the cheaper option for many consumers; the food industry’s intense focus on making junk food hyper-palatable; the almost $2 billion spent each year to aggressively market junk food to kids: the growing ubiquity of junk food in outlets which formerly never sold food (Michael’s craft stores, fabric stores, car washes, etc.); or a host of other factors. It’s just that Ma and Pa are no longer dispensing their homespun wisdom to little Jimmy and Sally around the dinner table.

June Cleaver for Secretary of Agriculture!
June Cleaver for Secretary of Agriculture!

I’ll say one thing for Parker’s world view:  it’s certainly seductive in its simplicity. Instead of having to attack the multiple root causes of two entrenched societal ills, childhood obesity and childhood hunger, we just have to do one thing — roll back the clock to upper middle class suburbia, circa 1955.

______

* An earlier version of this post contained free/reduced data for 2012-13.  It has been updated to reflect the guidelines in effect in the 2013-14 school year.

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House Committee Approves Healthy School Meals Waiver; 19 Past Presidents Break With School Nutrition Association

Yesterday the House Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal 2015 spending bill with controversial language, drafted by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), which would allow struggling schools to request a 12-month waiver from complying with healthier school food standards.  While that might sound innocuous, this waiver, which was strenuously opposed by the First Lady and school food advocates (including this one), is considered just the first salvo in a battle to unravel those standards during the Child Nutrition Reauthorization next year. The bill will now go to the House floor before being conferenced with the Senate version.  More on the yesterday’s House vote and its implications here.

Meanwhile, earlier this week, nineteen past presidents of the School Nutrition Association (the organization pushing hard for healthy school food roll-backs) broke with their own organization to urge Congress to stay the course on nutritious school meals.  The text of that letter is here:

School Nutrition Association
Past Presidents Initiative

May 27, 2014
The Honorable (Senate and House Members of Committees on Agriculture Appropriations)

Dear Agriculture Appropriations Conference Committee:

Thank you for passing the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 that is helping school nutrition
programs be part of a strong response to the nation’s obesity epidemic. Most schools are
having success implementing the HHFKA. However some schools report difficulty meeting the
requirements and are requesting waivers.

We the undersigned past presidents of the School Nutrition Association, understand that major
change takes time and a commitment to the goal that prompted the change. We believe most
communities and schools want school nutrition programs that help children learn to enjoy
healthy foods. We are confident that the broad public support for HHFKA and USDA’s
demonstrated willingness to work with school leaders to solve implementation issues will prevail
and create stronger school nutrition programs.

We urge you to reject calls for waivers, maintain strong standards in all schools, and direct
USDA to continue working with school leaders and state directors to find ways, including
technical assistance, that will ensure all schools can meet the HHFKA standards. Specific
concerns regarding whole grains and sodium can be addressed as technical corrections.
We must not reverse the progress that was sought by school leaders and is well on its way to
success in most schools. Should you need additional information please contact Jane Wynn at
954-545-4873(h) or 954-830-0777(c) or Shirley Watkins at 301-520-8558 (c).

Sincerely,
Shirley Watkins, former USDA Under Secretary FNCS
Katie Wilson, PhD, Executive Director National Food Service Management Institute
Josephine Martin, PhD, former Executive Director National Food Service Management Institute
Dorothy Caldwell, former USDA Deputy Administrator of FNS
Mary Nix former Cobb County, GA School Nutrition Director
Jane Wynn, former Broward County, FL School Nutrition Director
Anne Gennings, former New Hartford, NY School Nutrition Director
Mary Hill, Director of School Nutrition, Jackson, MS
Dora Rivas, Executive Director Food & Child Nutrition Services Dallas ISD, TX
Helen Phillips, Senior Director School Nutrition Norfolk, VA
Elizabeth McPherson, Former Food Service Director Caswell, NC
Phyllis Griffith, Former Child Nutrition Services Director Columbus, OH
Nancy Rice, State Director GA Child Nutrition Programs
Gene White, President Global Child Nutrition Foundation School Nutrition Association
Past Presidents Initiative
Marcia Smith, PhD, former Food Service Director, Polk County, FL
Gaye Lynn MacDonald, Consultant & Former Food Service Director Bellingham, WA
Penny McConnell, Director of Food Service Fairfax County, VA
Beverly Lowe, Consultant, Former Food Service Director Hampton, VA
Thelma Becker, Retired Former Food Service Director PA

Cc: Honorable Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
Honorable FNCS Under Secretary Kevin Concannon
Dr. Janey Thornton, USDA FNCS Deputy Under Secretary

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First Lady Defends Healthier School Food in NYT Op-Ed

Screen Shot 2014-05-29 at 8.45.53 AMWhat can I say?  The Michelle O. love I expressed yesterday only deepens. . . .

Here’s her piece in today’s New York Times making a strong case for staying the course on healthier school food.

Keep in mind that in writing this kind of editorial (and in making her White House statement on Monday), the First Lady is engaging in an unusually political discourse, in that she’s specifically taking issue with Republican-backed efforts to gut the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

In doing so, she’s taking a real political risk and deserves our support.  So please take these simple steps to show that you, too, care about saving healthier school lunches.  Thank you.

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Dear Michelle . . . .

Dear Michelle,

Can I call you “Michelle?”  I know it’s a bit presumptuous, what with you being First Lady and all, but for the last six years you and I have shared a beautiful friendship, one that’s no less special for being entirely one-sided.

We have so much in common, Michelle, it’s no wonder we’re one-way BFFs!  We’re both lawyers who changed careers in our 40s (though you do your current job in designer clothes and I often do mine in pajamas), we both have lawyer husbands (putting aside that yours is also leader of the free world) and we both have teenagers at home (not easy, right?).

I love that you were confident enough to wear blue nail polish at the Democratic National Convention and a J. Crew sweater to 10 Downing Street.  I love that you took a chance on bangs and then were willing to admit regret (who hasn’t been there?).  I love that even after six years in the White House you still seem totally real, unafraid to break into a little Mom Dancing or Double Dutch when the occasion calls for it.  And who cares if it was a breach of protocol to put your arm around the Queen?  You’re not a British subject — and, let’s face it, that woman looks seriously in need of a hug.

But what I love most about you is that you’ve made kids and healthy eating — the topic closest to my heart – one of the centerpieces of your tenure as First Lady.

Sure, you’ve had your share of critics – people who say Let’s Move! hasn’t done enough and that you’ve been intimidated by the food industry — but I remain grateful for all you have been able to accomplish, whether it’s nudging Disney toward a junk food ad ban or brokering a creative licensing deal between the Sesame Street Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association.  I recognize that there’s only so much anyone could do in this area from the East Wing, so I’ve praised you as a “savvy pragmatist” who “push[es] for reforms only where there are clear openings and likely pay-offs.”  In other words, I’ve had your back, like any good friend would.

But I have to admit, Michelle, even I wasn’t quite sure we’d hear from you when some in Congress and the School Nutrition Association recently began a concerted assault on your major achievement as First Lady – the 2010 passage of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA).  You’re such a polarizing figure in the school food debate (did you see Michelle Malkin’s latest rant? “Hell hath no fury like a Nanny State control freak scorned”) that I could see you reluctantly deciding it’s better to work from behind the scenes, like your recent off-the-record conference call with supporters, or making calls last week to help forge some compromises in the Senate appropriations process.

But I was so wrong!  Yesterday, at a White House meeting with school nutrition leaders, you made headlines by giving what’s being calledone of the most overtly political speeches during [your] tenure as First Lady.”  In a full-throated defense of healthier school food, in which you spoke both as First Lady and a concerned mother, you said attempts to weaken school food standards are “unacceptable,” and you “slammed” House Republicans for “playing politics” with our kids’ health.  You vowed to do what’s necessary to stay the course, telling those in the room that “We have to be willing to fight the hard fight now.” 

BRAVO, Michelle!

Now that I know you’re unafraid to get overtly political, I’m hoping that speech was just the start of a big public relations campaign to defend healthier school food.  Because even though you and I follow this issue closely, I’m betting the majority of parents still  think improved school food is a done deal (thanks to you), and have no clue that the nutritional improvements on their kids’ lunch trays are at risk. Or, even if they know what’s going on, they’re not sure how to express their displeasure about it.

Here are a few ideas I’ve had – some crazier than others, I’ll admit — to fire up the school food base:

  • I would love to see you on daytime talk shows and late night television speaking out about these attempts to weaken school nutritional standards. I’m thinking of shows like The View or Katie — we already know Katie Couric would be totally on board, based on her new film, “Fed Up.”  One word from you on shows like that, and the number of calls to Congressional reps from angry parents would go up exponentially.
  • OK, this one’s a little out there, but what about a  “Save School Lunch” march on the National Mall? Seriously, Michelle, just say the word and I’m on the next plane to D.C. with my vintage lunch tray in hand to march alongside you. And even regular parents (not just crazy school food advocates like me) would likely come out for a march if you added some celebrity speakers to the lineup.  I know we can both think of a lot of big names who would willingly support such a cause, especially if the invitation came from you.
  • Too ambitious?  What about a “virtual march” where you ask people to submit photos of themselves and their kids, holding up a sign asking to Save School Lunch?  If you ask, maybe people will do it and if the numbers are high enough, it could make some noise on Capitol Hill.
  • Or how about creating a YouTube video that’s a little out of the box?  After all, 18.5 million people tuned into YouTube to see the Evolution of Mom Dancing.  What if you did something equally engaging, but ended with a call to action in support of healthier school food?  (I’ll admit I’m not quite able to visualize the funny dance that goes with school food reform, but that’s where your team of highly paid PR experts comes in.)

Even if you do none of those things, though, I want to thank you for yesterday’s statement.  For those of us who stood with you and fought with you during the passage of the HHFKA, it would have been disheartening (though understandable, in my opinion) if you’d decided to wage this battle quietly and out of the public eye.

But maybe you’re laughing out loud right now, Michelle, because we’re totally having one of those BFF mind-melds and you were already planning on doing a lot of the PR stuff I suggest above.

That sort of thing wouldn’t be at all surprising in an imaginary friendship as beautiful as ours.

— Bettina

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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