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School Lunches in Spotlight as Vilsack Gets Grilled by Congressional Committee

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U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spent a few hours getting grilled about school meal programs today by members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The hearing was part of a series of discussions held in anticipation of congressional reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which sets the rules for the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.

The conversation touched on a variety of issues, including controversial nutrition standards the agency set for school meals as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Vilsack spoke as the American Heart Association launched an online petition in support of the regulations.

Many of the arguments committee members made against the school food rules will sound familiar to anyone who's paid attention to the debate. Take a look at this post from last year to familiarize yourself with some of the arguments. Today, committee members again mentioned concerns that the rules have led to increased plate waste (Vilsack cited research to suggest they haven't). They also mentioned schools leaving the school lunch program, complaining of decreases in revenue after the implementation of new rules that dictate what they can serve in vending machines, fundraisers, and a la carte lines. Vilsack countered that argument by saying just 59 schools have left the school meal program out of a total of 99,000 that participate.

Here are some other issues the committee raised.

Portion Pushback

Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., said he recently ate lunch at a high school in his district where a large football player complained that he received the same portion sizes as one of his small classmates with a smaller appetite. Kline said some students had turned to supplementing school meals with unhealthy junk food because they did not feel like they had enough to eat.

"The students wanted healthy meals, but the meals they were being served didn't meet their needs ... How can you say that the program is working as advertised but you have those kinds of problems?" he asked.

Vilsack said meals compliant with the new nutrition standards have roughly 25 fewer calories than typical meals made before those rules went into effect. He said schools could offer healthy a la carte options or "sharing tables" where students could trade items they did not intend to eat. The rules were designed in consultation with child nutrition experts in light of concerns about growing childhood obesity rates, he said.

"This is not, in fairness, all you can eat at Applebee's," Vilsack said. "This is a school lunch program."

Payment Problems

The USDA is working to improve eligibility verification for recipients of free and reduced-price school meals, Vilsack said.

He cited new professional standards for school food workers that he said would lead to fewer errors at the lunch-room level. The agency is also pushing for greater use of direct certification, through which students qualify for free and reduced-price meals after completing more extensive applications for other programs, such as SNAP or, in some states, Medicaid, Vilsack said. And the USDA hopes to simplify the forms families use to verify their income to ensure greater accuracy, he said.

Several committee members, including Virgina Foxx, R-N.C., pressed Vilsack about improper reimbursements, citing a 2014 Government Accountability Office report that designated the National School Lunch Program as one of 13 federal "high-error" programs due to its large number of estimated improper payments—approximately $1.8 billion in fiscal year 2013.

In addition to ongoing efforts, the USDA would like to review the books of as many as 10 percent of schools participating in the National School Lunch Program each year to ensure greater accuracy, Vilsack said. Congress currently only allow reviews of 3 percent of participating schools.

Dairy Dialogue

Vilsack also said he'd be open to providing schools more flexibility in the kinds of milk they serve, perhaps allowing them to serve flavored milk that is not fat-free.

"I think if adding that option would encourage more kids to drink more milk, we should do that," he said.

Vilsack made his statement in response to a question from Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Penn., who recently proposed a bill backed by the dairy industry that would expand the kinds of milk schools could serve as part of the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. Thompson said he was concerned that students are drinking less milk under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Under that policy, schools can serve low-fat, unflavored milk, but they can only serve flavored milk, like chocolate or strawberry, if it's fat-free.

The USDA has allowed similar flexibility about rules related to whole grains and protein.


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