Nutrition Experts Fight To Prevent GOP From Rolling Back Healthy School Lunches

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant eats lunch with a first grader CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ROGELIO V. SOLIS
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant eats lunch with a first grader CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ROGELIO V. SOLIS

The political debate over a national school meal program continues to rage, as GOP lawmakers and school cafeteria lobbyists seek to roll back recent reforms under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 while health experts maintain that the legislation is benefiting students. On Wednesday, a group of food management professionals testified before a Senate committee about how the new standards have improved the food preparation and distribution process in their states.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to set nutritional standards for food sold and distributed in schools, established local farm-to-school networks, and expanded access to healthy lunch to more than 115,000 children across the nation. If congressional lawmakers reauthorize the act in 2015, school programs across the country would receive $4.5 billion in funding over 10 years. But the measure has recently stalled, and experts disagree about what to do next.

“I believe [school meal programs] are the best safety net for our children,” Dr. Kathryn Wilson said during her testimony this week. “When a child walks through those cafeteria doors, the benefit is in the form of food and the child is assured access to that food.”

Wilson, the executive director of the National Food Service Management Institute, a University of Mississippi-based program, counted among five people that testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. Schoolchildren in her state particularly stand to benefit from new school meal regulations.

According to a March Gallup survey, Mississippi is the most obese state in the U.S., with a rate of more than 35 percent. The survey also drew a connection between high obesity and prevalence of chronic diseases — including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and depression.

The Jackson County School District, located in Mississippi, now requires that school breakfast contains a minimum of the following food components: fruit or fruit juice, milk, and two servings of bread or two servings of meat. Under the meal pattern requirements, schools in the district phased out fried food, and now offer more fruit and vegetable choices.

However, in recent months, GOP lawmakers and national groups have spoken out against the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, citing lower school meal consumption among children in rural areas and lethargic implementation in some school districts. A House bill to fund the Agriculture Department includes a provision that would allow states to disregard the new USDA regulations for one year, much to the chagrin of Democratic supporters and health advocates.

“As well-intended as the people in Washington believe themselves to be, the reality is that from a practical standpoint, these regulations are just plain not working out in some individual school districts,” Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), the lead author of that measure, said after a House panel approved the bill, according to the Boston Globe.

But a study conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation earlier this year paints a much brighter picture and gives supporters of the legislation some hope. According to the study, which was released this week, 70 percent of elementary school children “generally liked the lunch,” as did 70 percent of middle schoolers and 63 percent of high schoolers. Researchers also found an increase in consumption among poor urban youth.

Nancy Brown, the chief executive of the American Heart Association, said in a statement that the study “sends a strong message to Congress that schools should not be allowed to withdraw from or delay any federal nutrition standards.”

Plus, in recent years, people have increasingly acknowledged that healthy school meals can serve as an enrichment tool that exposes children to a wider range of foods. During the hearing, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, described instances when store owners saw certain fruits and vegetables rise in popularity among children in her district after the implementation of the healthy lunch program.

Wilson, a school nutrition expert with more than 20 years of experience, shared Sen. Stabenow’s sentiments.

“School meal programs should also serve as a learning tool to educate children what a healthy meal looks like. We operate in the education arena, so school meals must be part of that education process,” said Wilson.