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Wrangling Over USDA Guidelines May Impact School Nutrition Funding

Poncie Rutsch

Congress has until Dec. 11, 2015 to finish work on the budget before the current stopgap expires. In addition to taxes and highway funding, lawmakers will also have to deal with something that happens every five years, reauthorizing the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Although the idea of healthy school meals isn’t provocative, the USDA set nutritional guidelines the bill provides for have generated some pushback.

“We don’t want standards that are so rigid that students no longer want to eat school lunch,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, which advocates for healthy school meals - but has recently called for some flexibility in the guidelines.

Several school districts in Colorado are making it work, like Greeley-Evans District 6. Shortly after the new guidelines went into effect in 2011, Jeremy West, Director of Nutrition Services, began an effort to transform the district’s meal program into one primarily cooked-from-scratch. Now, about 75 percent of school meals served to District 6 students are made from scratch, compared to less than 20 percent before the change.

“As we came into the program I had anticipated increases in labor and food costs – and I knew I wasn’t going to have additional money to buy food,” West said.

With only about $1.50 to spend per lunch in raw food costs, staying within the budget is a balancing act.

“As we invest in better ingredients, we just have to balance that with other entrée items that are maybe less expensive to produce,” West said. “We’re trying to buy local as much as possible – and that helps with our nutrient value and sometimes helps bring our costs down.”

Although participation was down for the first few years of the transition from processed food, the new menus are catching on with students. In the fourth year, the decline leveled off and they actually have begun to see an increase.

“Our team knew it was really going to take a generation of students to make the change,” West said. “We were removing some favorites like chicken nuggets, things that kids have eaten for years, and replacing it with chicken on the bone and pot roast. And it’s going to take them a while to embrace that.”

But not all school districts are managing as well as District 6 – which is why organizations like the School Nutrition Association want change.

Congress estimated the cost of meeting these rules at an additional 10 cents per school lunch and 27 cents per breakfast, but only provided an additional 6 cents per lunch and no additional money for breakfast.

“So the cost of meeting these rules has resulted in schools absorbing $1.2 billion in added costs -- just this fiscal year,” Pratt-Heavner said.

Advocates of the stepped-up nutrition standards – including Colorado Democratic U.S. Representative Jared Polis – see the fight over the guidelines as Washington politics [.pdf].

“There’s a deliberate effort to water down the nutrition standards, and we’ve had some hearings about this,” Polis said. “I worry that some of the members of Congress reacting to lobbyists from the processed food industry are going to attempt to water down the nutritional standards at a time when I think we should be improving them.”

For his part, Jeremy West said the USDA guidelines have mostly been a good thing for his students in District 6.

“It’s really about educating the whole child, and if we do a great job with literacy and with math, but we’re ignoring the other aspects of education, including healthy eating and active living, we’re not giving our kids the best possible chance of student achievement in the classroom.”

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