Senate tackles school lunch issues

School nutrition officials featured in Senate ag hearing on meeting challenges of feeding school children.

Legislators, school officials and dieticians are struggling to balance the idea of what a school meal should consist of and under what guidance school meals should operate. Key personnel on the front lines of implementing school lunch standards shared their views on challenges and success stories that have come about from the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act during a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing July 23 as a larger effort to update child nutrition laws.

Julia Bauscher president of the School Nutrition Assn. testified that schools want school meals to be appealing to all kids, but that also brings with it significant challenges. She said it’s important to allow for some flexibility to ensure students continue to come to the cafeteria and eat and not give up on school lunches. And operators need a little bit of flexibility to ensure all students can participate.

Some of SNA’s members have worked very hard and been early adopters of the standards. Flexibility is sometimes needed in order to allow students some time to catch up. “You don’t turn taste buds around on a dime,” she said.

Betti Wiggins, executive director of the Office of Food Services in Detroit Public Schools, said she didn’t wait until 2014 to roll out the standards called for in 2010. “It’s really about constantly and continually educating our children.” Their “stoplight salad” consisting of zucchini, yellow squash and tomatoes from vegetables grown in their own gardens has been a huge hit.

One of the last remaining requirements is that as of July 1, all grains offered with school meals must be whole grain rich. Bauscher said regional grain items such as tortillas in the southwest, grits and biscuits in the southeast and bagels in the northeast create some challenges to switching to products that appeal to students.

Bauscher said many school districts could be more comfortable reaching a level of 90%, but the 100% requirement is difficult to meet from a procurement standpoint and taste preference.

Higher costs

In her opening testimony, Bauscher shared that the SNA’s 2013 Back to School Trends Survey found that in the 2012-2013 school year 47% of school meal programs reported revenue declined while more than nine of ten reported food costs were up.

And despite significant inflationary increases in food prices over the last year, the reimbursement rate adjustment for the coming school year was actually smaller than the one for the previous school year.

Bauscher, who is also the director of school and nutrition services at Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kent., explained that each half pint of milk will cost her district a nickel more this school year.

“That increase alone exceeds the increase in the breakfast reimbursement and is equal to the increase in the lunch reimbursement,” she said, adding that the 4 cent increase for breakfast comes nowhere close to covering the significant costs schools face now that they are required to double the amount of produce offered with each breakfast – up to a full cup, per the July 1, 2014 requirements. In her district, a half cup of fresh fruit costs on average 25 cents.

Where from here

Scott Clements, director of the office of Healthy Schools and Child Nutrition at the Mississippi Department of Education said since 2010, 150 policy memos have been sent out to clarify regulations under the updated standards. A big challenge is that once those memos are released, states have to look at how to implement and then get training out to school districts.

Often the updated guidance comes out a few weeks or a month before the implementation deadline. Clements said although the exemptions are appreciated, it can sometimes be hard to pivot with purchasing cooperative contracts already in place years in advance as well as getting training out to food administrators quick enough.

Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), said stakeholders must work together to address challenges in providing healthy meals to children in schools.

“We can only make these important changes if our friends and partners in the food industry, non-profit organizations, agriculture, state and federal agencies, cafeterias and classrooms all work together,” she said. “If we can turn a corner in this country by offering healthy food choices in schools, and by teaching healthy eating habits, we will not only improve the health of our children, but our country’s long-term economic and national security as well.”

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