On October 7, School Nutrition Association CEO Patti Montague submitted the following letter to the editor of the New York Times in response to its recent article:
“How School Lunch Became the Latest Political Battleground” (Oct. 7) ignored critical failures of the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) overly prescriptive school meal regulations and misrepresented the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) advocacy efforts, specifically omitting policy solutions proposed by school nutrition professionals.
SNA members have consistently supported strong federal nutrition standards for school meals, including limits on calories and fat, mandates to offer students more fruits and vegetables, and reasonable sodium and whole grain requirements. Those on the frontlines in school cafeterias nationwide are merely asking for common-sense flexibility under the most stringent requirements.
School nutrition professionals nationwide have struggled to plan menus that meet these complex regulatory requirements but still appeal to students. The goal of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was to have more students eating healthy school lunches, but under these regulations, USDA data show more than one million fewer students choose school lunch each day. Students are choosing convenience food over meals that offer milk, fruits and vegetables, while declining meal sales rob schools of revenue for additional menu improvements.
The financial pressure will only intensify. USDA estimates that in Fiscal Year 2015, local school districts and states must absorb $1.22 billion in new food, labor and administrative costs under the regulations, amounting to a 10 cent increase in the cost of preparing each school lunch and a 27 cent increase for breakfast.
Without relief, more paying students will leave the cafeteria, increasing the stigma on students who rely on free school meals, and draining school district budgets in the process.
SNA is asking USDA and Congress to provide common-sense flexibility under the rules to help schools limit waste, manage costs and encourage more students to choose healthy school lunches. Specifically, SNA’s requests are:
Maintain the 2012 requirement that half of grains offered be whole grain rich, instead of requiring that all grains be whole grain rich.
Maintain Target 1 sodium levels, and suspend further reductions until scientific research supports them.To avoid food waste, offer, but do not require students to take a fruit or vegetable.Allow healthy items permitted on the meal line to be sold a la carte as well.