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School Nutrition Association Seeks Meeting With Michelle Obama, USDA

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The School Nutrition Association, which has been leading the charge for waivers for some schools from federal nutrition standards, sent a letter to first lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack today to request a meeting to "to discuss the challenges our members face as they continue to work diligently, and in good faith, to implement the regulatory requirements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act."

It's unclear from reading the letter exactly what the SNA hopes to accomplish from that meeting. Does the organization hope to convince Mrs. Obama and Secretary Vilsack that the proposed one-year waivers, included as a rider in the House of Representatives' agriculture appropriations bill, are the right way to address their concerns? Or do they hope to win more regulatory flexibility from the federal agency? The USDA has already eased rules about whole grains and protein requirements in response to feedback from school meal professionals.

Or maybe they wanted me to write this blog post after seeing the letter (mission accomplished!). After all, both sides of the school food fight have waged aggressive public relations campaigns, pitching their approaches through conference calls, special media events, and op-ed pieces. From the letter:

"Mrs. Obama and Secretary Vilsack, we want there to be no doubt: SNA and its members support the majority of the new nutrition standards for school meals. But to meet the goals that we share with you for America's children, we are seeking some common-sense flexibility in the rules in order to help students adjust to healthy changes in their school cafeterias, to increase the number of children who benefit from healthy school meals, and to keep our programs financially stable."

Is flexibility in implementation enough?

Supporters of the meal standards say the flexibility the SNA is seeking should come through adjustments made by the USDA. They argue that the waivers would stall the implementation of the standards in many schools until some lawmakers work toward a longer-term goal of eliminating them all together.

But the SNA says that the flexibility the USDA has provided hasn't been enough and that its members are struggling with declining revenue and increased costs as they work to implement the rules. From the letter:

"Unfortunately, in spite of the best intentions and efforts, too many individual school district operations continue to struggle with the increased costs, decreased revenues, increased waste, and declining participation directly associated with implementation of the nutrition standards. And while it is true that 90 percent of school meal programs have met the 2012 requirements, it is simply inaccurate to say that implementation has been successful, or that schools are prepared to meet the standards that take effect on July 1."

In addition to supporting the waiver plan, the SNA is asking "the USDA or Congress" to:

  • Retain current grain and sodium requirements, rather than racheting them up another notch as planned.
  • Eliminate the requirement that students must take a fruit or vegetable with their meals.
  • Allow any food item that is allowed on the main food line to be served as a competitive food under the new Smart Snacks rules, which are also set to go into effect July 1.

The letter calls those actions "very reasonable, rational requests, ones that would neither gut the nutrition standards, nor give license to schools to serve 'junk food.'"

Who would win waivers under the House plan?

Under the House plan, schools that can demonstrate a loss of net revenue in their food service budgets in a six-month period would be eligible to opt out of the rules in the 2014-15 academic year. But critics, including Vilsack, have said almost any school could use fuzzy math to earn a waiver under that plan. That's because there is great variation between schools in how food-service budgets are set up. Some schools, for example, charge a fee to their food-service budgets for overhead costs like cleaning and electricity. Would such charges be considered in net loss calculations? The USDA doesn't have a process to rapidly audit invidual food-service providers to verify these calculations, Vilsack said. In an interview with The Lunch Tray blog, former SNA President Dora Rivas, who is nutrition director for Dallas schools, put it this way:

"I can't speak for the entire group of past presidents but I've heard a number say that they are concerned with the fact that it would be very difficult for the USDA to administer these opt-outs.  For example, in Dallas, I'm able to break even, but even I could make my program look like it was not breaking even for six months [a requirement for districts seeking a waiver].  So I think it would be hard to administer."

Will we see a historic kale summit?

I will let you know if I hear anything further on the subject. The clock is ticking. The House is set to take up its agriculture appropriations bill again soon, and the Senate is discussing its own bill, which does not include a waiver rider, this week. Meanwhile, the next phase of the nutrition standards is set to kick in July 1.

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