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We Should Rethink Our Approach to School-Lunch Policy

This month, Rick is out catching up on various and sundry projects that piled up during the rollout of Letters to a Young Education Reformer. In his stead, we've got a terrific slate of guest bloggers. Up this week is Rachel White, a postdoctoral fellow/research associate at USC's Rossier School of Education.

In 2010, U.S. Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Subsequently, USDA regulations for the National School Lunch Program (NLSP) were revised. Championed by former First Lady Michelle Obama as part of her Let's Move! campaign, the reforms increased the amount of fruits and vegetables that must be served in school cafeterias, required all grains served to students be whole grain rich, required reductions in sodium content, eliminated the use of food preparation products that contain trans fats, and required milk to be fat-free or, if unflavored, 1 percent low fat. Additionally, over the past decade, policymakers in some states have enacted policies to provide more nutritious foods to children, such as banning deep fryers in school cafeterias.

Since the enactment of these recent school-lunch policy reforms, much debate has ensued. While public-opinion research shows that most American parents and voters are supportive of strong nutrition standards for school meals, others are less enamored. For example, the School Nutrition Association contends that the 2010 federal reforms were "overly prescriptive" and "have resulted in [...] reduced student lunch participation, higher costs, and food waste."

Similarly, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, after signing a proclamation that will provide greater flexibility around school-lunch nutrition requirements, recently expressed his concerns with the 2010 reforms: "In the south, where the schools want to serve grits. But the whole grain variety has little black flakes in it, and the kids won't eat it. The school is compliant with the whole grain requirements, but no one is eating the grits."

Yet another argument put forth by those in favor of relaxing school-lunch regulations has nothing to do with providing kids with healthy meals. At the state level, Texas's agriculture commissioner, Sid Miller, is doing away with the state's ban on soda machines and deep fryers in public-school cafeterias to provide locals with "freedom, liberty and individual responsibility."

Yes, recognition must be given to the major difficulties in the implementation of both federal and state regulatory reforms related to school-lunch nutrition. It is also hard to see cafeteria food go to waste. But, it seems that many conversations surrounding school-lunch policy changes are happening in silos and largely ignoring those who are most affected by these policies: kids.

Let's start with the argument that the 2010 reforms led to a reduction in student lunch participation. Yes, over the past five years, participation in the NSLP has declined in every single state (to confirm this, I compared state-level NSLP participation numbers provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to student-enrollment data provided by the U.S. Department of Education). However, correlation does not imply causation; confounding variables—like lunch prices—must be taken into account.

Recent declines in NLSP participation can be largely attributed to decreases in "paid lunch" participation—that is, students who are not eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches (research has shown that NLSP participation among students eligible for free meals has actually increased). For those of you who may not know, school-lunch prices are set at the local level. In a 2014 survey, over half of the districts surveyed reported increases in paid lunch prices, which is undoubtedly related to having to purchase healthy foods that are more expensive. Although many attribute declines in NLSP participation to increased lunch prices as a result of the 2010 reforms, I am not entirely convinced. For example, information available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture revealed that the average price charged to "paid lunch" participants increased 21 percent between 2004-05 and 2009-10.

Recognizing the growing cost to school districts to purchase and prepare healthy foods, perhaps we need to discuss ways to make healthy lunches more affordable to those students whose family income isn't that far outside of free- and reduced-price eligibility thresholds. And we need to better understand why students are opting out of school lunches. While students' grumbling about school-lunch food on Twitter has received ample media attention, it is not clear to me whether dissatisfaction with food choices—rather than a cost—is the primary reason that NLSP participation is declining. It is likely a bit of both.

What about the case for relaxing school-lunch regulations in order to get kids to eat the school lunches and reduce food waste? Sure, kids may not always prefer broccoli, peaches, and whole grain quinoa. But, school-lunch participation rates are highest among elementary students. Should public tax dollars really be used to feed these young kids unhealthy foods that they may prefer, even if research shows that such foods may result in a lower quality of life and even increased risk of death down the road?

Moreover, research has shown that children who are repeatedly exposed to new foods are more willing to accept them. Maybe we need to give this healthy food thing a try for just a little while longer?

And school-lunch waste is nothing new: A study conducted in 2010—two years before the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and ensuing regulations—found that elementary-school students wasted more than one-third of grain, fruit, and vegetable items. Rather than throwing the baby carrots out with the bathwater, perhaps conversations need to focus on developing innovative solutions. For example, researchers have found that students who had recess before lunch ate 54 percent more fruits and vegetables than kids who ate lunch before recess. Other research has shown that minor makeovers in school lunchrooms, such as placing fresh fruit next to the cash register, placing images of vegetables directly on lunch trays, and labeling foods with exciting names like "X-Ray Vision Carrots" and "Tiny Tasty Tree Tops," can increase kids' healthy-food consumption.

Lastly, the third case that has been put forth: school-lunch regulations should be relaxed simply in the name of local control. Put simply, policy decisions that affect the quality of life of schoolchildren should not be made solely based on politicians' beliefs about which adults should have control. These impactful decisions must focus on what is right by kids.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: you're asking me to consider allowing students to choose who sits on their school board (see Tuesday's blog) but not their lunch tray? Yes—there are two very different policy considerations at hand here. The former is providing students a right to choose to become civically engaged at an earlier age; the latter is putting students at risk of consuming foods that could lead to serious physical- and psychological-health maladies.

To be sure, this discussion is not meant to say that one level of government is "better fit" to determine what foods are served on school-lunch trays. And federal and/or state flexibility is just that: flexibility—not a mandate that schools return to serving fried food. I am optimistic that even with relaxed federal- and/or state-government regulations, school districts will continue to strive to serve kids healthy foods that will nourish their minds and bodies. Regardless of whether the local, state, or federal government is involved in setting school-lunch policy (or any education policy for that matter), we must ensure that kids are at the center of these important policy discussions. And, ultimately, kids should never be robbed of a decent quality of life as a result of the foods they consume in public schools.

—Rachel White

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