USDA Won’t Delay Healthier School Snacks or More Fruit in School Breakfasts

by Bettina Elias Siegel on March 19, 2014

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.)

cheetosnacho

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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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Casey March 19, 2014 at 10:37 am

I also have sympathy for schools over the issue of wasted fruit and the impact on already strained budgets. I just have more sympathy for children who aren’t learning to eat fruits and vegetables and how that will impact their health for the rest of their lives.

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Bettina Elias Siegel March 19, 2014 at 10:58 am

I agree. It’s just that offering fruit (and vegetables) in a vacuum, with no nutrition education, no over encouragement, no change in the child’s home environment, and in a culture that relentlessly promotes junk food, it’s easy to see why so many kids sill refuse to eat it. Sigh.

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MiliMaru March 28, 2014 at 11:00 am

One thing I’ve also noticed the is the quality of the fruits and vegetables the kids get. Having interned recently in the school system, if I thought that all apples were like the ones they receive, i’d be put off of fruits for life!

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Bettina Elias Siegel March 30, 2014 at 9:40 am

I’ve seen that too, MiliMaru — rock-hard pears or totally unripe bananas. It may be hard for schools to source perfectly ripe, appealing fresh fruit but at the same time,it certainly doesn’t encourage fruit consumption by kids. Sigh.

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