“This Isn’t Applebee’s” — A School Food Update

I feel like I’ve been failing you, TLT’ers! I aim to keep you informed of the latest school food news, but due to travel and other real life intrusions I’ve fallen a bit behind.  And that’s unfortunate because there’s a lot going on these days with the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR).

Just to remind everyone, the CNR is the every-five-year refunding of child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).  That gives Congress a prime opportunity to modify existing school food regulations and, as you know, the more stringent school meal standards of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) are now at risk.

Here’s a round-up of the latest:

The Most Recent CNR Hearings

The House Education and Workforce Committee continues to hold hearings on the CNR, and there have been two more hearings since the one I recapped for you in April:

You can watch the archived webcasts and/or read testimony from hearings using the above links, but for the non-wonks among us, Education Week has a good recap of the June 16th hearing, as does The Hill, and Agri-Pulse‘s has a good summary of the June 24th hearing.

Vilsack Stands Firm on School Meal Standards

At the June 16th hearing, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testified before the full committee and answered members’ questions, offering a staunch defense of the HHFKA.  He responded well to criticisms of the law’s meal standards, including allegedly increased plate waste (debunked by the Harvard School of Public Health) and tales of districts leaving the NSLP in droves (actually, only 59 out of 99,000 have left, according to Vilsack, and Dana Woldow has reported they often suffer financially as a result).

But my favorite Vilsack line came in response to committee chairman John Kline’s (R-MN) characterization of school meals as too skimpy to feed hungry athletes, a common refrain from opponents of reform (which Woldow also recently debunked.) After pointing out that the new meals are a mere 25 calories lighter, on average, than the old ones, Vilsack added, “This is not, in fairness, all-you-can-eat at Applebee’s. This is a school lunch program.”

But Meanwhile, Over in the House Appropriations Committee . . .

. . . the fiscal 2016 agriculture discretionary spending bill was released, and it includes a provision to “defund” any further school food sodium reductions (see Section 733) and contains the whole grain waiver language (see Section 732) we’ve discussed quite a bit on this blog.  If ultimately adopted, these provisions would be a blow to those who favor robust school nutrition standards.  

On the upside, the spending bill also contained language which, if adopted, would continue to keep Chinese-processed chicken out of school meals.  (That’s the cause I and fellow food activist Nancy Huehnergarth spearheaded via a successful Change.org petition last year.)  Many thanks to Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), a tireless food safety champion, for continuing to fight that battle to protect our kids.

What’s the Timing on the CNR?

No one can say for sure, but school meals aren’t in jeopardy even if the September 30th deadline for the CNR passes. Politico‘s Morning Agriculture report helpfully explains:

House Republicans continued to apply their scrutiny on child nutrition programs in a hearing Wednesday but gave no hint of a potential timeline for getting a bill out to change the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act as the law is set to expire Sept. 30. . . .

School lunch and breakfast programs are permanently authorized to continue after the Sept. 30 date. Other programs, like the Summer Food Service Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program and the Women, Infants, and Children Program, are set to expire, though an extension is likely.

So, What Can I Do to Keep School Meals Healthy?

Chef Ann Cooper is asking people to go to Causes.com and pledge to tell their Congressional representatives that they care about kids’ health and want to keep the school meal standards of the HHKFA intact.  Or, take a moment to sign and share one of the many petitions now circulating to achieve that goal, such as this one from Food Policy Action and this one from the American Heart Association.

And if you need some more inspiration to take action, check out Chef Ann’s latest post on US News & World Report, “The Five-Year Plan for National Childhood Nutrition: Don’t Undo the Progress.”

*  *  *

And with that, TLT’ers, I’m going to be offline again for two to three weeks, absent any big breaking news.  I hope you’re having an enjoyable summer and I’ll see you back here in mid-late July!

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New Report Debunks Notion That Kids Are Running From Healthy School Food

For the last year or so, the School Nutrition Association has been intent on creating the impression that school children are running away in droves from the new, healthier school food mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.  This characterization, if true, would provide the food-industry-backed SNA with a strong justification for rolling back several key nutritional standards in Congress in the coming year.

fraclogoBut a new report by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) turns the SNA’s story on its head.  FRAC’s long-term data analysis finds that school meal participation among low-income children — the very children the NSLP was designed to serve — has actually increased significantly in recent years, while participation among higher income children has dropped, likely due to changes in meal pricing and the lure of competitive foods.  Most importantly, both of these trends, according to FRAC’s analysis, were well in the works many years before the new school meal standards were introduced in the 2012-13 school year.

Reports like this will be critical in fighting back against SNA’s high powered lobbyists, who are already gearing up to weaken meal standards during the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization in Congress.  But as FRAC’s data show, low-income children need school meals that are as nutritious as possible – now more than ever.

I encourage you to read the whole report, here.

 

 

 

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SURVEY: 75 Percent of Districts Want More Money for School Food, But SNA Still Won’t Ask For It

It’s National School Lunch Week and it’s no surprise that the School Nutrition Association (SNA) and its allies are taking this opportunity to press their case for gutting federal nutritional requirements that would make school food healthier.

SNA logoThe National School Board Association (NSBA), long aligned with the SNA on these nutritional roll-backs, yesterday released the results of a survey of 650 school leaders which reportedly found that, since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act regulations went into effect, “83.7 percent of school districts saw an increase in plate waste, 81.8 percent had an increase in cost, and 76.5 percent saw a decrease in participation by students.”

The NSBA doesn’t share its survey methodology so we have no idea whether the 650 individuals surveyed were self-selected (and therefore might have more of an axe to grind over school food regulations) or whether the phrasing of the survey questions in any way skewed the results.

But let’s take the NSBA survey at face value for a moment.

Amid the disturbing data about plate waste and lowered participation, which will surely garner a lot of media attention, an interesting statistic emerges.  According to the survey, a whopping “75 percent of school leaders encourage an increase in federal funding for school districts to comply with the new standards,” while 15% fewer of those surveyed support the “flexibility” (SNA’s favorite buzzword for: “gutting of regulations”) which the SNA is now doggedly pursuing on Capitol Hill via its high-powered lobbyists.

Ironically enough, in an “urgent message” SNA sent to its 55,000 members this week to discourage them from signing an open letter supporting healthier meal standards, the organization reassured school food professionals that it welcomes their “thoughts and concerns.”  But now a survey conducted by SNA’s own ally clearly identifies a “concern” of fully three-quarters of the school food professionals surveyed:  they would like more funding for healthier school meals.

So why isn’t the SNA, their only voice on Capitol Hill, doing anything about it?

Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the SNA, previously told me that the SNA made the decision long ago to refrain from asking Congress for more money:

Although SNA is emphasizing the extremely limited funding under which school meal programs must operate, members of Congress and their staff on both sides of the aisle from key authorizing committees have made it extremely clear that additional funding will not be available for child nutrition programs as part of reauthorization.

I agree that getting more funding out of Congress would be very hard.  It always is.  But the SNA — before it launched its misguided effort to roll back healthier school meal standards – was once aligned with many widely respected voices which would have strongly supported such a request, including the American Medical Association, the Children’s Defense Fund and the retired, four-star military leaders behind Mission Readiness, to name only a few.  The association also would have been backed by a still-hugely popular First Lady, one with a powerful megaphone.  It could have relied on a recent peer-reviewed study finding that kids are actually adjusting well to healthier school food, data which supports staying the course, instead of putting itself in the incredibly awkward position of having to dispute that study.  And, perhaps most importantly, it could have come to Congress armed with new data showing that the vast majority of American parents — on both sides of the political divide – want healthier school food.

Instead, SNA squandered all of that political capital and took the easy way out.  It is now deeply entrenched in its strategy to roll back school meal standards, an effort that’s likely to intensify in the coming year as the school food law comes up for reauthorization in Congress.  If Republicans, many of whom are allied with SNA in this effort, win control of the Senate this fall, we may well see decades of work on school food reform go up in smoke.  That this outcome would be the handiwork of the very people entrusted to feed our children makes it all the more distressing.

If you are a current or former SNA member who believes your leadership is on the wrong track, please take a moment to sign and share this letter.

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School Lunch Prices on the Rise Nationwide

For a long time now I’ve wanted to alert TLT readers to an important development — the rising price of school meals — but, frankly, out of sheer laziness that post has languished in my Drafts folder for months.  Today I got the impetus I needed when the New York Times published a front section story on this very issue.

The bottom line facts you need to know:  under the new school food law passed last year, school districts must bring the price for a paid lunch (that is, a lunch purchased by a student who does not qualify for free or reduced price meals) into line with what the meal actually costs, eventually charging an average of $2.46 per lunch.  Districts can raise their prices gradually, by as little as ten cents a year, until the meal price and costs are in line.

As the New York Times article discusses more fully, the impetus for the price increase was a finding by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research organization in Washington, that by keeping the price of the full meal too low, the paid meals were effectively being subsidized by the federal dollars which are supposed to be allocated to the meals provided to kids who are on free/reduced lunch.  In other words, if paid meals better represented the costs to produce them, there would be more money in the system to improve the overall quality of meals.

The concern, however, is that the price increases, though modest, will adversely affect the many families who have an income level just above the cut-off for reduced price lunches; for these parents, even an additional ten cents a year could make the difference between being able to buy lunch for their children or not.   Late last year, fellow school food blogger Ed Bruske (aka The Slow Cook) published a post on Grist examining that question in much more detail.   The Times article also notes that a price increase could drive more parents to simply fail to pay for the lunches their children take, which creates a significant financial burden for large urban districts in particular.  A price increase could also decrease overall participation in districts’ programs, thus depriving districts of much needed revenue.

Even though the law contemplates a gradual increase in lunch prices, here in Houston my district decided to raise its paid meal price far more dramatically this year, from $1.85 to $2.25.  When I asked at a Parent Advisory Committee meeting this summer how this price increase would likely impact participation in the program, I was told that the increase affects only about 8% of the students in our district, because the vast majority of kids here — almost 90% — are on free/reduced lunch.  I was also told that a similarly large price increase years ago did not have any adverse effect on participation.  I was a bit skeptical of that latter statement; I’ll try to get an update on participation rates at our next PAC meeting, for interested Houston readers.
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Why Hungry Kids Sometimes Still Go Hungry in American Schools

A reader recently sent me a Reuters article describing a study from Canada which demonstrates (not surprisingly) that adolescents from food insecure households perform better academically and have better behavior in school when the schools provide meal assistance.

The study reminded me that way back in July (and then again in August!), I promised to explain how it is that hungry children in American schools often still go hungry — and how the Obama administration is trying to increase their participation in school food programs.  Under the heading “better late than never,” here’s my post on that subject.

Some children who are eligible for free/reduced price meals choose not to take advantage of the program because of the stigma attached to such meals, especially when there’s an “a la carte” line in the same lunchroom offering such “cool” foods as Papa John’s pizza and fruit slushies.  That’s a critically important topic worthy of separate examination, and I’ve discussed it here previously (“A La Carte – A World Apart?”).

But as Janet Poppendieck discusses in Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, many kids who qualify for free/reduced price meals never get those benefits in the first place (regardless of whether they then use them to get the “uncool” meal).  She cites four major obstacles to children’s participation in the free/reduced price meal program:

Application:  Parents of hungry children may not always apply for free/reduced lunch.  The reasons can include being unaware of the program; feeling a sense of stigma at having to rely on government assistance; finding the forms too daunting to fill out, especially in the case of new immigrants; or a (misplaced) fear of the form being sent to immigration authorities.

Certification: Innumerable errors can (and do) occur in the processing of applications by schools which can result in a child never getting certified by the program, even if a parent has tried to apply.

Verification:  A subset of applications will be selected for random verification, in which the parent must provide documentation of household size and income.  This can be daunting for many parents, including the new immigrant or the parent who is paid in cash at work (such as a cleaning lady or nanny).  According to 2002 data cited by Poppendieck, 50% of those parents from whom documentation was sought simply didn’t respond and their child’s meal benefits were terminated.

Price:  Parents who don’t qualify for free meals may be able to receive reduced price meals for their children.  However, the reduced price can still be unaffordable to a family in that income category. Poppendieck lays this out well in her book, showing how, after normal household expenses, such a family could struggle to come up with the reduced price each day, five days a week, for their children.

The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, up for a vote as early as today, would attempt to fix some of these problems through a variety of means, including allowing schools in high-poverty areas to offer free meals to all students without any paperwork, making foster children automatically eligible for free meals, and giving incentives to states that improve their certification rates.

Until we fix this problem, however, we’re confronted with the sad paradox of hungry kids enrolled in schools offering food, yet still going hungry.  And as the study cited above makes clear, the resulting consequences — poor academic performance, behavior problems and school absenteeism — hurt us all in the long run.