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Agriculture Secretary Pushes Back Against Critics Of Healthy School Lunch Program

CREDIT: JACQUELYN MARTIN, AP
CREDIT: JACQUELYN MARTIN, AP

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged Congress to reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which created higher nutrition standards for school lunches and has been championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, at the National Press Club on Tuesday. According to a national survey of 1,200 adults released by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation released last month, the vast majority of Americans support the current nutrition standards.

New rules, such as those restricting sodium intake and advocating for whole-grain-rich foods, have raised concerns among some schools, however, which say that it’s challenging to find low sodium, whole-grain food options that students actually will eat and that it’s becoming increasingly expensive to provide healthy lunches. The School Nutrition Association has lobbied Congress for more flexibility in the rules.

There has also been a conservative backlash against nutrition standards, with Republican lawmakers suggesting that students work for their school lunches. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh has criticized the first lady for eating steak on vacation while pushing for better nutrition, adding that people aren’t supposed to eat “roots, and berries and tree bark.”

Vilsack took aim at some of these criticisms, along with Jessica Donze Black, director of child nutrition at The Pew Charitable Trusts, and Sandra Hassink, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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“I’ve heard a lot of the reasons we should take a step back, and roll back some of the standards, and I want to address several of those concerns. One of those concerns is that participation is down and therefore there must be a reason to roll back and reduce the standards. Well the reality is that school breakfast participation is up,” Vilsack said. “Second, free-and-reduced lunch participation is actually up. What is down is paid lunch and that didn’t start with the standards. That actually happened several years before the standards were enacted, in large part I suspect, because of the economic realities we face.”

Vilsack cited studies that contradicted a well-publicized Vermont study that showed students throwing away fruits and vegetables, including a 2014 Harvard University study, a 2015 University of California Berkeley study.

“More fruits and vegetables are being consumed and plate waste is not any bigger of an issue than it was before. Now plate waste is an issue in the entire U.S., but it has not increased as a result of these school meals,” Vilsack said.

Hassink pressed the importance of keeping standards high, saying that the U.S. can no longer take children’s health for granted.

“We have 4-year-olds with liver disease based on their obesity. Since children typically consume almost half of their calories in school we really have an obligation to ensure those meals are healthy as possible,” Hassink said. “Just as vaccinate to prevent illness, we can vaccinate against disease. We vaccinate against chronic disease by providing children with nutritious foods in schools and make our schools a role model of great nutrition.”

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In addition to concerns about food waste, Vilsack acknowledged complaints about a lack of funding to meet the standards. He said that schools should ask their state legislatures and governors about $28 million in funding leftover from $90 million for the program that was provided to the states after the law was first enacted.

The Obama administration will also provide $2.6 million for training programs for cafeteria staff and allocate $5.6 million to the USDA’s Smarter Lunchroom strategies that help states develop ideas that will encourage healthy eating. Vilsack also referenced its Team Up for School Nutrition Success initiative, which helps rural schools come up with creative strategies to provide healthy food.

“If you’re a rural school and you’re having a hard time because your student population numbers are down and your state aid may not be what it once was, and the cafeteria is having a hard time, we may set you up with a rural school who has been successful in figuring this out,” Vilsack said. “We provide a mentoring relationship to call a colleague and you can ask, ‘How did you handle this?’ and we now see that is indeed working, and we have now expanded this beyond the deep south.”

Vilsack said the department is also providing greater flexibility to food processing companies that are trying to get the fat and sugar content down in their foods by providing additional time to reformulate.

The economic betterment of children is reliant on their health, Hassink noted at the press conference.

“When we fail to meet [standards for children’s health], we shortchange our children and we shortchange them in terms of their ability to contribute to our society,” Hassink said. “The earlier we address these fundamental needs, the better off we are. Children who are well nourished have better brain development. They have healthier IQs, they have better immune systems, and they have better educational attainment than those who are not well-nourished. Food insecurity is a source of a stress on a child and that toxic stress can compromise their physical, mental, and social well-being into adulthood.”