House Conservatives Target Healthy School Lunch Standards

By | April 23, 2016

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An influential group of House Republicans aims to dismantle the National School Lunch Program and the improved nutritional standards that first lady Michelle Obama advocated.

Conservative lawmakers in the House Freedom Caucus last week listed hundreds of regulations and rules they want President-elect Donald Trump’s administration to examine or revoke within its first 100 days. The school lunch program is first on the list. 

The Freedom Caucus document claims the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’s 2012 standards to increase the healthiness of food served to 30 million students “have proven to be burdensome and unworkable for schools to implement.” Students, the lawmakers say, aren’t eating the healthy food and schools are throwing it away. 

Nutrition advocates said they were startled by the proposal to roll back the first lady’s signature program, which studies show is having a positive impact on children’s health.

“If we want to improve child nutrition, there is no better way I know of that will impact so many children,” Lorrene Ritchie, director of the University of California’s Nutrition Policy Institute, said of the school lunch program. “Repealing this seems to me to make no sense.”

Ritchie helped author a study published in last month’s issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that found meals served through the lunch program were nutritionally superior to those students brought from home. School lunches were associated with more fruit, fewer refined grains, and fewer calories from added sugars and solid fats, according to the study of almost 4,000 elementary school students in California.

The study covered a period before the stricter nutritional standards in 2012 and was in line with previous research.  

“Even prior to those changes, we are seeing kids who eat school meals eat better than kids who don’t,” Ritchie told HuffPost.

If researchers were to repeat the study with the new nutritional standards, Ritchie said, school lunches would look even better. School cafeterias, she added, are the front lines for action against the nation’s well-documented struggle with childhood obesity.

It’s unclear whether the GOP-led Congress would support loosening school lunch standards, which have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support. It’s also uncertain whether the conservative lawmakers want to gut the program’s nutritional standards or change them. 

The caucus wants a “rethinking” of the $12.7 billion lunch program and associated breakfast program, Ben Williamson, a spokesman for Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the caucus chairman, said in an email. He cited a 2015 Congressional Budget Office report as evidence the program may “run the risk of becoming insolvent.” Williamson didn’t respond to a request seeking further comment.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the GOP attack on the program was “out of touch with the progress that’s been made” improving school lunches.

Wootan acknowledged there were well-founded complaints about the program’s stricter standards, but the gripes have declined as schools have adapted. She described Freedom Caucus opposition as “purely political anti-government sentiment” that upends the program’s historical support from both parties.

“School lunch has long been a bipartisan tradition that has brought together rural agriculture concerns with urban poverty concerns and everybody in between,” Wootan told HuffPost. “It’s a shame to see calls for bringing junk food back into schools.”

A Pew Charitable Trusts report issued this month found that 84 percent of schools reported revenue from meal reimbursements, and from snack and beverage sales have either risen or remained stable under the new guidelines. Six in 10 food-service directors acknowledged obstacles in meeting the requirements.

While food waste remains an issue in America’s school cafeterias, that problem has not been made worse by the new meal standards, according to a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine.

Trump doesn’t appear to have commented on the school lunch program. The president-elect, who famously has a fast-food fondness, has yet to name an agriculture secretary, who would oversee the program.

“We’ll see if the administration appoints people who recognize the enormous progress that has been made on school nutrition in the last five years and either support it or to try to roll it back,” Wootan said.

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Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email [email protected]

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