Starting in 2014-15, two significant changes will be coming to school cafeterias. First, under the new “Smart Snacks in School” rules, we should see a big improvement in the nutritional content of snack foods and beverages sold to students from outlets like vending machines, fundraising tables and “a la carte” snack bar lines. Another, less-talked-about change is a new requirement that schools offering breakfast provide students with a full cup of fruit, rather than the 1/2 cup currently required.
But as I told you in my “State of the Tray” piece for Civil Eats last month, the School Nutrition Association, the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals, is pushing back against these changes. Earlier this year, the SNA successfully lobbied to insert language in the Congressional report accompanying the 2014 Omnibus Spending Bill, advising USDA to grant schools a one-year waiver on either requirement, if implementing the requirement would result in increased cost. (In essence, the SNA was seeking a blanket, one-year delay on both changes, since most school districts could easily make the “increased cost” argument.)
The USDA, however, apparently will not go along with this plan. In a letter sent last week from Agriculture Secretary Vilsack to Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), the USDA states it lacks the legal authority to grant waivers in either case. Vilsack wrote:
Our Office of the General Counsel has confirmed that USDA is prohibited by Federal law from waiving these regulations and is also prohibited from authorizing State agencies to do so. . . . Since report language is non-binding in nature, and statutory prohibitions are binding, USDA is respectfully unable to comply with the directive to establish a waiver process.
In a press release following the release of the letter, SNA expressed its disappointment.
With respect to the Smart Snacks in School rules, I’m glad to learn that there will be no delay in the rules’ implementation. For far too long, schools have balanced their budgets at the expense of student health by selling some of the worst junk food out there, in competition with the healthier, nutritionally balanced school meal. (Anyone remember this photo, snapped here in Houston ISD? That’s a pile of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos doused in nacho cheese sauce, a “lunch” concocted by a middle schooler from items bought on the school’s own a la carte line.)
When it comes to the increased fruit requirement, however, I might surprise some TLT readers when I say I have sympathy for schools resisting this change. I’ve talked to many school food professionals and parents who’ve expressed their dismay over the amount of fruit already wasted on a daily basis at breakfast. And in a large urban district like mine, where over 80% of our kids are economically disadvantaged and a universal, in-class breakfast is the norm among our 300 schools, paying for that 1/2 cup increase is likely to be a big drain on our school food budget.
Regardless, in light of USDA’s legal opinion, it looks like both changes will go forward next year. I’ll keep you posted on any further developments.
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