Five years ago, Congress passed a groundbreaking bipartisan bill that brought federally subsidized school breakfast, lunch and snack program requirements in line with the government's own dietary guidelines for the first time. Titled the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, it mandated replacing meals and snacks laden with fat, sugar and salt with healthier ones featuring whole grains, more fruits and vegetables, and lower-fat milk products.
That's a good thing. On average, U.S. children consume five times the recommended amount of sugar but only about a third of the recommended quantity of fruits and vegetables. The result of such unhealthy eating habits? More than a third of U.S. children are overweight or obese, conditions that increase the risk of Type II diabetes, heart disease and some cancers later in life and inflate health care costs.
The legislation, now up for reauthorization, has been an unqualified success. A whopping 95 percent of the school districts participating in the $16-billion-a-year program are meeting the new dietary requirements. The standards have already spurred children to eat more fruits and vegetables. And an overwhelming majority of Americans want the government to maintain the standards the way they are -- or make them even stronger.
Given those encouraging results, one would expect that reauthorization would be a piece of cake, but in fact that's not the case. Why? An influential lobby group is egging on lawmakers to roll back the nutrition standards.
That shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who follows sausage-making on Capitol Hill. What is a surprise, however, is the group spearheading the campaign. It's none other than the School Nutrition Association (SNA), an organization of 55,000 school cafeteria professionals that helped lead the charge for the new standards in the first place.
What's Eating SNA?
Like many other nonprofit professional groups, such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Heart Association and American Medical Association, SNA cultivates partnerships with corporations that have a stake in federal policy. Roughly half of SNA's $10 million annual budget comes from processed food companies, including Domino's Pizza; cereal giant General Mills; Pepsico, maker of Pepsi Cola, Mountain Dew and Frito-Lay snack foods; and the privately held Schwan Foods, which purportedly supplies 70 percent of the frozen pizzas served in school cafeterias.
Still, that corporate funding didn't stop SNA from endorsing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act back in 2010. And now that the bill's standards are in place, many of SNA's corporate sponsors that were originally unhappy with them -- including Domino's, General Mills and Schwan -- have reformulated their products and are doing fine selling whole grain-rich, lower-fat and lower-sodium fare. Sales and profits are up.
Regardless, SNA now wants to chop the requirement that schools provide a paltry half a cup of fruits and vegetables a day, slice the whole grain-rich standard, cut further salt reductions, and give schools the "flexibility" to opt out of the requirements altogether.
The big question is, what's SNA's beef?
Two analysts in the Union of Concerned Scientists' Food and Environment Program -- Lindsey Haynes-Maslow and Karen Stillerman -- tag-teamed a five-part blog series this summer that debunked SNA's half-baked arguments for weakening the school meal standards. Here's a synopsis of what they found:
SNA Claim No. 1: There's a shortage of healthier junk food alternatives.
SNA complains that schools are having a tough time finding enough reduced-fat Doritos, whole grain Rice Krispies Treats, and other reformulated junk food items.
"Rather than substituting junk food with slightly better junk food," Stillerman asked, "shouldn't SNA be focused on helping schools truly transform the lunch tray?" She went on to point out that the goal of the federal food program is to change behavior, not pander to school children's bad eating habits by providing junk food. Changing behavior "takes time and effort," she added. "Studies show that children's eating habits must be shaped early on and with repeated exposure to healthy food."
SNA Claim No. 2: Healthier standards have driven up school food costs.
"Some of USDA's regulations go too far," SNA contends, "driving up costs and waste and causing many students to swap healthy meals for less nutritious options."
According to Haynes-Maslow, a more plausible reason why school food costs have gone up is because the price of food in general has jumped nationwide. Besides shelling out more for food, cash-strapped schools also have had to provide more discounted and free lunches over the last few years due to the fact the economic recovery has not trickled down to everyone. Cafeteria labor costs, too, have gone up: It takes more time -- and training -- for staff to prepare dishes with fresh food than it does to throw prepackaged processed meals into a microwave.
The bottom line is schools need more dough. Earlier this year, Haynes-Maslow authored a report recommending that the federal government boost reimbursement rates for subsidized school meals. SNA likewise has requested more reimbursement dollars, but it is also calling for flexibility, which would enable schools to ignore the federal nutrition requirements.
SNA Claim No. 3: Lowering sodium levels at school may harm children.
Not only did a recent SNA white paper conclude that children are not at risk of hypertension from consuming too much sodium, the organization also has suggested that children might be harmed by reducing sodium levels in school food.
Lowering salt content could harm children? Not according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which found that 90 percent of U.S. children between the ages of 6 and 18 eat too much salt. And although children may not be candidates for sodium-induced hypertension at their age, studies show that what people eat when they're young influences their taste preferences when they get older.
SNA maintains it is just too difficult to cut back on salt. "The ubiquity of sodium in the diet of children...," the SNA white paper asserts, "and the preference for salty food create substantial challenges for schools to provide acceptable meals...."
Stillerman suggested the real problem is the processed food industry's preference for salty food. After all, the top sodium-laden food in children's diets, according to the CDC, include chicken nuggets, cold cuts, pizza and such savory snacks as tortilla chips -- the very junk food SNA's corporate sponsors produce.
SNA Claim No. 4: Children won't eat whole grain-rich foods.
SNA claims that the "mandate that all grains must be whole grain-rich has increased waste and contributed to the decline in student lunch participation.... Schools should be permitted to serve white rice or tortillas on occasion, just like most families do."
"Yes, families sometimes choose less healthy options," Haynes-Maslow responded. "More to the point, many low-income families are forced to serve inexpensive, unhealthy meals to their children. And that's exactly why the taxpayer-funded school meal program should follow more stringent nutrition standards. School meal programs introduce children to healthier foods, and for many food insecure children, it's their only real opportunity to consume healthy meals.
"... Whole grains are an important part of the school lunch equation because they provide children with much needed nutrients, including high dietary fiber content that leaves children feeling fuller longer," she added. "High fiber intake among adults has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and Type II diabetes. Under [the new nutrition standards], whole grain-rich foods must be at least 50 percent whole grain. So when SNA asks to roll back the whole grain content from 100 percent to 50 percent, [it is] basically asking that our children be served grain-based foods that are a measly 25 percent of whole grains."
In any case, SNA's claim that children won't eat whole grains is contradicted by data compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the school meal program and subsidizes meals for low-income children. The agency found that only 325 of the nearly 20,000 school districts that participate in the National School Lunch Program applied for waivers from the whole grain requirement. That's less than 2 percent. USDA approved 281 of the requests.
SNA Claim No. 5: Some schools are struggling to implement the new requirements.
As mentioned above, the USDA found that 95 percent of school districts are meeting the new nutritional standards. Stillerman filled in the details in one of her blog posts:
"According to the USDA's state-by-state assessment of 19,721 school food authorities, the vast majority reported successful compliance with the new nutrition requirements," she wrote. "Seventeen states reported 100 percent compliance, including some that are, shall we say, not known for healthy eating. ...And the remaining struggling schools are mostly concentrated in just a few states and territories."
When asked about the 95 percent compliance rate, SNA's director of media relations, Diane Pratt-Heavner, replied: "It's immaterial."
"A 95 percent compliance rate is more than material," Stillerman countered. "It's indisputable evidence of success."
Saved by the Bell?
Given how well the school nutrition program is doing, SNA should be declaring victory. Instead, the organization ramped up its lobbying budget to convince Congress to fix something that ain't broke, and unfortunately it has found some sympathetic ears.
Echoing SNA, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) wants to give schools more "flexibility" in meeting the nutritional standards. Another Ag Committee member, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), introduced a bill in May that would allow schools to cut whole grain content in half, from 50 to 25 percent.
It's not a done deal, however. Roberts and Hoeven are getting pushback from ranking Ag Committee member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who has no appetite for weakening the standards. "Our children need access to nutritious food at their schools in order to succeed in the classroom," Stabenow said when the Senate passed the legislation in 2010. The new standards help "fight childhood hunger while encouraging young people to enjoy healthier food choices."
Stabenow has time on her side: The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is scheduled to expire at the end of this month. If Roberts can't get a reauthorization bill passed by that deadline, the law's nutrition standards will remain unchanged -- despite SNA's campaign -- at least for now.
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.