Who Decides What Your Kids Have for Lunch?

If you care about what’s on your kids’ lunch trays at school, you should also care about how the foods that end up on them get chosen. Congress sets nutritional standards that must be followed – the amount of calories, the portions of fruit and vegetables, what’s counted as a vegetable – as part of spending appropriations bills and other bills. The original school lunch act was passed in 1946. It provided funding for free and reduced price lunches, as well as setting out specific nutritional standards for those lunches.

In 2010, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act, which represented the most significant change to school nutrition standards in 30 years, and the first change in 15 years. The new act required that school lunch foods contain less sodium, more fruits and vegetables, and lots more whole grains.It also authorized spending for a number of programs that are vital to growing healthy kids, including the National School Lunch Program, a summer meals program, and additional funding for schools that meet the new federal guidelines.

Here in Worcester, we have taken advantage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act to provide free breakfast and lunch for all kids. Under the guidance of Donna Lombardi, School Nutrition Director for the Worcester Public Schools, we’ve also got a nationally recognized farm-to-school program, and have hired a professional chef to help expand and develop the menus and food choices available to students. In addition, the funds appropriated under that bill has helped expand the summer meals program that helps families provide healthy food for kids when school is not in session.

There’s a little hitch, though, and it puts those programs in danger. The funding for that bill must be reauthorized every five years by Congress. The last funding appropriations bill expired on September 30, 2015, and a new one is only halfway to being passed. The Senate Agriculture Committee unanimously voted the 2016 Improving Child Nutrition and Access Bill out of committee.

Why should providing healthier foods for our kids become politicized? You’d think it was something that would draw wide bipartisan support – but there are a lot of reasons why it doesn’t.

Congress’ decisions are influenced by some pretty powerful groups. Individual representatives can’t be experts on everything. They rely on groups that claim expertise to help advise them on how to vote on various issues. One of the groups that features heavily in advising individual members of Congress about school lunches and childhood nutrition is the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit association that represents more than 56,000 school nutrition professionals around the country. Their aim is to be the authority and resource for school nutrition programs across the country. Their mission statement says that they are committed to advancing the quality of school meals through education and advocacy.

Commonly referred to as the “lunch ladies,” the SNA also counts among its members – and biggest funders – big agribusinesses and food businesses that supply the ingredients for the lunches that end up on your kids’ lunch tray. A look behind the scenes at how support for the 2010 nutritional standards evaporated offers some clues and insight into how and why what our kids eat at lunch is so highly politicized.

In 2010, SNA was solidly behind the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act. At that point, the legislation was essentially an outline, a diagram for the kinds of changes that nutritionists, doctors, moms, school lunch ladies and big food companies all agreed would result in healthier lunches and, ultimately, healthier kids. Then the USDA started hammering down the specific rules that school cafeterias would have to follow, and all hell broke loose. By October 2014, when the New York Times published “How School Lunches Became the Latest Political Football” (read it! It’s long and dense, but it really delves into the sheer number and power of the interests competing for space on your kids’ lunch tray.), the SNA had completely reversed its course and was one of the loudest critics of the 2010 act. What happened? Basically, they succumbed to pressure from groups who didn’t like the specific rules were being nailed down.

Some of the pressure came from the school lunch professionals. The new standards made it more difficult for them to produce qualifying meals and still stay within their budgets – something they’d been able to do for decades by relying on staples provided by high profile food suppliers. Many of those staples would no longer meet the new requirements – or would make it impossible to construct a full lunch that would. A lot of it came from agribusinesses that rely on their sales to the companies that supply school lunch staples, which put pressure on their state reps and senators, and on their contacts in the USDA, to massage the rules in their favor. Here are just a few examples of how those interests were pushing back against the proposed regulations and rules:

  • The USDA was looking to reduce the amount of “starchy vegetables” – a code word for potatoes, though it also includes corn, peas and beans – on school lunch trays in favor of other types of produce. Potato farmers and their representatives pushed back – sales to schools account for 300 million pounds of potatoes, or just over 1 percent of annual sales.
  • For years, school lunch planners were allowed to count 2 tablespoons of tomato paste used on pizzas as serving of vegetables, under the reasoning that it took about four times the amount of fresh tomatoes – about 1/2 cup – to render 2 tablespoons of tomato paste. The USDA wanted to count 2 tablespoons of tomato paste as 2 tablespoons of tomato paste – it would no longer be allowed to count as a full serving of vegetables. That would mean another vegetable would have to be served alongside pizza in order for the meal to count. Frozen food companies that supply pizza to the schools jumped in to pressure Congress on that rule – and they won. While saying that Congress declared pizza a vegetable is stretching it a bit, a slice of pizza with 2 tablespoons of tomato paste will continue to count as a serving of grains and a serving of vegetables.

The issues that they’ve highlighted have a lot more to do with money and staying within budget than they have to do with making sure kids eat healthy meals.They also cite having trouble getting kids to eat the new healthier meals.