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Five Takeaways From Congress' Latest Hearing on School Lunch Rules

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The Senate's agriculture committee met today to discuss reauthorization of federal child nutrition programs. Reauthorization happens every five years, and action in 2015 will be the first since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act went into place in 2010.

Like all discussions about school food lately, much of today's hearing focused on whether schools have struggled to meet new nutrition rules set under the 2010 act and whether reauthorization should include "flexibility," which has been favored by groups like the School Nutrition Association. (Take a look at all of SNA's requests here.) Here are some key takeways from the meeting.

Politics Are Involved

The conversation generally split along party lines. Democrats, like committee chairperson Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, said it may simply take time for schools to adjust to the new rules. "As we know, this is not always an easy task, but the goal of reducing childhood hunger and obesity is too important to reverse course now," she said.

Many witnesses at the hearing, including Detroit school nutrition director Betty Wiggins, said they had successfully implemented the new rules and found ways to make meals appealing to students.

Republicans said flexibility (like a one-year waiver from the rules for some schools included in the House agriculture appropriations bill) is important because changes have been hard on some schools' budgets and difficult for many students to accept. "Some of you have figured this out," Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., told the witnesses. "We've got a problem though because a vast majority of your colleagues haven't figured it out."

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said "there isn't any federal law, regulation, or policy that should be considered the gold standard and not to be changed." He urged committee members "not to be unduly influenced by the position of those who support the current standards."

Perhaps Thune was referring to Michelle Obama. Or maybe he was referring to her husband, whose press secretary once opened a daily briefing with a statement that said the move to delay implementation of the standards "replaces the judgement of doctors and nutritionists with the opinions of politicians."

Free vs. Paid

"School nutrition professionals are truly committed to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and its goal of expanding access to our healthy school meals, and that is why we are so concerned about the historic decline in student lunch participation under the regulatory requirements of the new law," said Julia Bauscher, the new president of the School Nutrition Association.

The SNA has repeatedly pointed to a Government Accountability Office report that found that student participation in the National School Lunch Program declined by 1.2 million students, about 3.7 percent, between 2010-11 and 2012-13, when the new rules were first implemented, after having increased steadily for many years. During that time, the number of full-price participants dropped by 1.6 million students while numbers of free and reduced-price participants increased. If trends continue, school lunches may be seen as food for kids from low-income families, while others will eat their own foods they bring from home, she said.

Others at the meeting said they'd heard students are happy with the updated meals. Newly released surveys show school administrators said few students were complaining the spring after the rules were implemented and that students generally seem to like the new lunches. [CLARIFICATION: This blog post has been updated to cite the surveys as an example of student sentiments.]

Wiggins said another provision in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, called community eligibility, helps Detroit feed many students whose family income isn't low enough to qualify for free meals but who struggle to afford to eat on their own. Through community eligibility, qualifying schools can serve free meals to all students without requiring applications. Wiggins said she's also won over some more affluent students by offering special salads made with vegetables they helped grow in a school garden. Those salads are now available in a local restaurant, she said.

All (Food) Politics Is Local

The U.S. Department of Agriculture offered schools some flexibility in meeting whole-grain requirements for pasta after food directors complained there weren't enough whole-grain products available that students would actually eat. Under the rules, 100 percent of grain items schools offer must be at least 50 percent whole grain. Bauscher said many schools have been largely successful at meeting this requirement, but they often struggle to find tasty whole-grain versions of regional favorites, such as tortillas in the west, bagels in the east, and biscuits and grits in the south.

Wiggins said she's able to offer her students a local favorite, soul food. The collard greens, corn bread, and black-eyed peas "might not taste like mama's," but students like them, she said.

Increased Complexity

The new regulations are complex, which can create difficulty with implementation, especially for districts with unlicensed staff operating school kitchens, witnesses said.

"We feel like we're drinking from the firehose sometimes," said Scott Clements, the director of the Office of Healthy Schools and Child Nutrition at the Mississippi Department of Education. The USDA has issued about 150 policy memos to clarify regulations since 2010, he said. Clements said Mississippi has created a statewide purchasing cooperative to help districts buy fresh fruit and vegetables, created spice blends that comply with new sodium restrictions, and posted recipes and menu-planning resources online so that any school in the U.S. can use them.

Katie Wilson, executive director of the National Food Service Management Institute at the University of Mississippi, said the institute has created online training modules and videos and has offered in-person technical assistance.

Bauscher, who is also nutrition director for Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, KY., said she split one staff position into two, hiring one person to do menu planning and another to do purchasing, a decision necessitated by more complex regulations.

Wilson said staffing issues are especially significant because some schools hire staff members without licensure or training to work in school kitchens. Proposed new training and continuing education requirements for food service workers could help with that, she said, noting that nursing homes are required to hire registered dieticians to comply with regulations. But some groups, including the AASA, The School Superintendents Association, have called the training standards "an unfunded mandate."

Show Me the Money

Would more money help? Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., asked witnesses if they would like to see the feds increase the subsidies and reimbursements they provide for school meals.

Shockingly, everyone said yes.

Photo: Arlington Public Schools food service workers discuss the day's lunch service for Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia. USDA Photo by Bob Nichols.

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