New school lunch standards raise concerns

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON – Concerns about the new nutrition standards in the federally funded National School Lunch Program and their implementation this fall have generated student protests in some areas and renewed criticism and even opposition on Capitol Hill, at least on the Republican sides of the aisles. At the same time, advocates for the new nutrition requirements, which increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free and low-fat milk while setting per-meal calorie caps, said it was vital the new rules be given time to work to help reduce child obesity and provide youths a guide to more healthy eating.

Food wastage and the calorie caps required under the new school lunch nutrition requirements were particular targets of critics. Under the new rules, the maximum calorie limits for school-offered lunches were 850 for high school students, 700 for middle school students and 600 for elementary school students. The rules also specify increased portions of fruits and vegetables, which have been rejected by many students.

Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, in an Oct. 3 letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, said, “I agree that improving the nutrition in school meals is a challenge deserving our attention. However, now that school districts have begun implementing the new standards, students, parents and administrators across the country are raising many concerns with the new rule.”

Roberts said his constituents and others had three chief concerns. First was the “excessive plate waste due to kids not wanting to eat the new meals, especially the required servings of fruits and vegetables.” Second, there was concern the school lunch meals provided insufficient calories and protein to satisfy children throughout the school day. And third, Roberts expressed concern over the potential for a large number of schools across the country to leave the program.

Specifically, Roberts asked the US Department of Agriculture to develop a cost estimate, in total and for each food group, for plate waste due to school children not wanting to eat the new meals. He asked for a cost comparison of an average meal under the new rule versus an average meal under the previous rules.

He asked for an estimate of how many calories were served in an average meal under the previous rules and what concessions if any were made in establishing the new rules to accommodate student athletes and students involved in other extracurricular activities, who may require a greater number of calories during an average school week.

He asked, “What flexibilities can you offer schools to enable school food authorities to meet the caloric needs of students who are significantly more active than the average student?”

And the senator asked the USDA for its “estimate for how many schools will drop out of the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs (because of the new nutrition requirements), and what impact will less participation have on the programs.”

Asked about some of the criticisms of the new nutrition standards, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the USDA was working with school districts to develop healthful snacks for student athletes participating in after-school practices or events. Vilsack also encouraged parents of student athletes to pack extra food for their children that they may eat before beginning their after-school activities.

“We understand that change is difficult,” Vilsack said. “Some folks love it; some folks have questions about it. But that’s to be expected when you’re dealing with 32 million school children and more than a 100,000 school districts.”

Move to repeal standards

In the House of Representatives, representatives Steve King of Iowa and Tim Huelskamp of Kansas on Sept. 14 introduced The No Hungry Kids Act, H.R. 6418, which would repeal the new nutrition standards for the school lunch and breakfast programs, including the calorie caps. The bill also would prevent the USDA from prohibiting “a child from eating a lunch provided by the child’s parent or legal guardian,” although the bill did not specify there was any USDA policy or practice that prevented parents or guardians from sending their children to school with any food they wished.

In introducing the bill, King, who faced Christie Vilsack, the wife of Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack, in his bid for reelection to Congress, said, “For the first time in history, the USDA has set a calorie limit on school lunches. The goal of the school lunch program was, and is, to ensure students receive enough nutrition to be healthy and to learn. The misguided nanny state, as advanced by Michelle Obama’s ‘Healthy and hunger free kids act’ was interpreted by Secretary Vilsack to be a directive that, because some kids are overweight, he would put every child on a diet. Parents know that their kids deserve all of the healthy and nutritious foods they want.”

Huelskamp added, “The goal of the school lunch program is supposed to be feeding children, not filling trash cans with uneaten foods. The USDA’s new school lunch guidelines are a perfect example of what is wrong with government: misguided inputs, tremendous waste, and unaccomplished goals. Thanks to the nutrition nannies at the USDA, America’s children are going hungry at school.”

Eleven other House Republicans signed on as co-sponsors of the bill, which was referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

A national security issue

A counterpoint to these actions from some members of Congress was a statement issued by Lieutenant General Norman Seip (US Air Force, ret.), who, on behalf of Mission: Readiness, said, “I am one of more than 100 retired generals and admirals who supported the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that Congress passed with bipartisan support in 2010. The retired generals and admirals of Mission: Readiness know that the poor state of nutrition among children is more than just a national health issue. It is a national security issue and an economic security issue.”

Lt. Gen. Seip said the Department of Defense asserts that being overweight or obese is the leading medical reason why some young adults cannot enlist, with one in four too overweight to join.

“The experts at the Institute of Medicine and USDA used the best-known dietary science and consulted widely with stakeholders around the country before establishing the updated school meal standards that have gone into effect this fall,” Lt. Gen. Seip continued. “Many schools are doing a creative job in making healthy meals appealing. We need to give the standards a chance to work and give kids a chance to adjust to eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and a little less sugar, salt and fat.

“We need to keep in mind that the childhood obesity crisis is serious and is not going away. Any retreat from these new standards would mean turning our backs on the obesity crisis and on the future well-being of our children. With one in four young adults too overweight to serve our country in uniform, failure is not an option.”

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