Commentary: States and School Districts Need More Flexibility for Child Nutrition

School Lunch

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) are theoretically designed to provide nutritious and well-balanced meal to school children across the nation. The programs allow participating public and nonprofit private schools to serve free meals to children who are near, at, or below the poverty line, and reduced meals to children who are just above it. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service administers 15 nutrition assistance programs that include the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the Summer Food Service Program. Together, these programs comprise America’s nutrition safety net.

Unfortunately, in our schools many of these meals are unappealing to the children expected to eat these meals, therefore they are not consumed and defeat the very purpose for which they are designed. There’s an old saying that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. In this case, well-meaning public health reformers who have worked hard to improve the nutritional value of public school lunches cannot force the children to eat them. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue stated: “If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition – thus undermining the intent of the program.” A study done by the University of Vermont found that while children placed more fruits and vegetables on their trays – as required by the USDA mandates put in place in 2012 – they consumed fewer of them. The amount of food wasted increased by 56 percent, the researchers found.

The Trump administration and the United States Department of Agriculture are now extending “flexibilities” to the Child Nutrition Program to address this issue. This process will restore local control of guidelines on whole grains, sodium, and milk. Hopefully, this process will result in making child nutrition programs more efficient for states and school district to implement, and more appealing and palatable for children. It is imperative to give schools more flexibility and greater control in meeting federal nutrition standards for school meals.  While it is important to promote healthful eating, districts are better positioned and more proficient in menu planning in order to serve nutritious and appealing meals than the federal government.

By giving states and districts increased flexibility it does not mean well-balanced meals are not going to be provided. That would be counter-intuitive as there is a link that healthier eating does improve academic performance in children.  The research (The Effect of Providing Breakfast in Class on Student Performance) demonstrates the connection between school meals and student test scores has focused on improving access rather than the meals’ nutritional value.   However, in the last decade, schools have been facing increasing fiscal burdens as they attempt to adhere to existing, stringent nutrition requirements.  According to USDA figures, school food requirements cost school districts and states an additional $1.22 billion in Fiscal Year 2015 (Ag Secretary Perdue Moves to Make School Meals Great Again).

It is essential that federal control over public education be limited. Our policies should empower states and local school districts to have the ability to make menu planning, food procurement, and contract decisions for their meal programs.   The United States Department of Agriculture recognizes that it takes food manufacturers “at least two to three years to reformulate and develop food products” to meet changing standards, a process that involves “innovation of new products, product research and development, testing, commercialization, launch, and marketing.”  In addition, there are challenges of “developing technologies to help overcome consumers’ sensory barriers” and worth noting there is a “low level of demand for these products outside of the school audience.” In a diverse country, it is expected children would have different tastes and children would have different nutritional needs.  These decisions are better determined at the state and local level and not in Washington DC.

For example, examine the issue of milk consumption where the federal government mandated that children in the breakfast or lunch program could only receive non-fat, skim milk. However, a recent study of preschool-aged children published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, a sister publication of the British Medical Journal, finds that 1%/skim milk drinkers had higher BMI z scores than 2%/whole milk drinkers.   To be clear, previous federal mandates may have increased obesity in children rather than having the desired effect of slimmer and healthier kids. It would have been better policy if the federal government had issued suggested guidelines on any recommendation that lacked rigorous data to support its guidelines.  Certainly, more definitive studies are needed on the subject matter.

America’s nutrition safety net is critical for children and families across the nation. It is important to keep the bar high when it comes to serving nutritious food in our schools.  However, unelected and often unaccountable bureaucrats in Washington DC should never exercise more power over states and local schools in determining the needs and priorities of the communities they serve. School lunches/student nutrition are not partisan issues, nor should they be allowed to become one.  The public can offer comments written comments on this interim final rule must be received on or before January 29, 2018. This can be done online here or by contacting Tina Namian, Chief, School Programs Branch, Policy and Program Development Division, Food and Nutrition Service, 703-305-2590.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee. Professional Educators of Tennessee is a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.  Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.

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One Thought to “Commentary: States and School Districts Need More Flexibility for Child Nutrition”

  1. 83ragtop50

    Why are taxpayers on the hook for “free” meals at school to start with? How many Billions is this costing us each year? There are many other programs already in place to provide food and health care for them? Is it just another means for the federal government to dig its hooks more deeply into a function that should be of local control?