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by Lydia Carron, Slow Food USA Policy Intern

Periodic federal legislation, the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR), updates the nation’s laws providing for school meals, including the original National School Lunch Program (NSLP), begun in 1946, the School Breakfast Program (SBO), and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). The Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), signed into law by President Obama on December 13, 2010, was the last update and the first major reform to the NSLP in more than 30 years.

Administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the NSLP serves 30 million children – about 60% of all in the country – in 100,000 schools and provides free or reduced-price meals for over 22 million of them. Many children receive most, if not all, of their daily calories at school, making these meals their primary source of nutrition. Most importantly, these programs help hedge against food insecurity that can lead to lower nutrient intakes, anemia, cognitive issues, depression, aggression, anxiety, and other behavioral problems. 

The HHFKA addressed critical health issues, primarily child overweight and obesity, and provided school meal operations an opportunity to get ahead of the health issues facing our nation. The HHFKA called for: increased fruit and vegetable servings, with a limit on the amount of starchy vegetables; increased wholegrains; age-specific serving sizes, since calorie needs differ by age; low-fat or fat-free milk only; and elimination of most sugar-sweetened beverages. Milk, whole grain, and sodium targets were to be reached over the next ten years. Sodium would be gradually reduced from <1,420 (Target 1) to 740 (Target 3) by school year 2022-2023. These changes were based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and recommendations from the Institute of Medicine.

The HHFKA nutritional changes in school food began successful implementation during school years 2012-2013 with 98% of school districts meeting the guidelines, per the USDA. These changes were met with no substantial reductions in student NSLP participation or increases in plate waste, the food served but not eaten. Students ate the food!

Despite these positive outcomes, in the years following (2012-2017) there was substantial pushback in Congress as a result of lobbying by large food industry groups, such as the American Frozen Food Institute, the National Potato Council, and the Schwan Food Company, and complaints from some school districts about increased food costs and plate waste.

National School Lunch Program ”Flexibility”

The Trump Administration began attacking the HHFKA by offering program “flexibilities,” allowing schools to disregard key HHFKA sodium, whole grain, and milk targets, un-doing much of the good that the programs set into motion. “Make school meals great again” was USDA Secretary Perdue’s slogan. However, “great” often equated to less nutritious meals for students.

By December 2018, the USDA initiated a final ruling on school lunch nutritional standards, which eliminated the need to reach the HHFKA nutrition targets of 2012. The Attorneys General of six states and the District of Columbia, joined by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, sued the USDA over the rule, and, as result, in April 2020, the ruling was vacated.

The main justification for these policy rollbacks was increased plate waste. However, a study by Cohen et al found that food waste levels were already high prior to the implementation of the HHFKA. And that, although plate waste remained high, “the new guidelines have positively affected school meal selection and consumption… Contrary to media reports, these results suggest that the new school meal standards have improved students’ overall diet quality. Legislation to weaken the standards is not warranted.

Pandemic “Flexibility” 

Covid-19 has created new uncertainty for families and children – the meals received through nutrition programs are, for some, their primary food source. To continue providing meals to students and families participating in school food programs, there have been necessary and generally well-intentioned program changes. “As the country reopens and schools prepare for the fall, a one-size-fits-all approach to meal service simply won’t cut it,” said Secretary Perdue. According to the national School Nutrition Association, 95% of USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) regions received emergency meal assistance at the beginning of the pandemic.

New USDA child nutrition program waivers were initiated, including the Nationwide Meal Pattern Waiver, which gave states the flexibility to serve meals that do not meet the meal pattern requirements of the HHFKA. The SFSP and Seamless Summer Option (SSO), programs that normally operate only during the summer, were extended until December 2020. The extension of SFSP and SSO has provided additional flexibilities allowing nutritional guidelines to be waived at the discretion of the schools. Also, Meals-to-You, another pandemic response program, now discontinued, distributed food boxes to families in low-income, rural areas. The boxes included ten breakfasts and ten lunches all composed of shelf-stable foods, meaning no fresh fruits or vegetables. The boxes primarily contained fruit cups, crackers, and canned chili, which are high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and sodium, respectively.

Although these innovations ensure that children have continued access to food, the side-effect is a further retreat from the beneficial guidelines created by the HHFKA. For example, milk can be of the full-fat, flavored variety, an allowance that directly contributes to obesity.

We Must Fix School Food, Again

The Administration’s assault on school meal nutrition and the present disruption of meal programs, while a necessary reaction to the pandemic, are establishing a lesser nutrition standard.

New home-life routines, increased family financial stress, and computers being the new classroom together make learning inherently more difficult. Proper cognitive function and brain development are linked to adequate nutrient intake. We cannot overlook one pandemic, obesity and overweight, for another, Covid-19. Long-term consequences of poor nutrition include obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Additionally, diets high in sweetened beverages, saturated fat, sodium, and simple carbohydrates, hamper immunity. People of any age with these conditions are at an increased risk of severe illness from Covid-19 now and later in life. By overlooking the importance of upholding nutritional guidelines, flexibilities are jeopardizing students’ academic performance and futures.

What You Can Do!

In the near term, while the Administration and Congress struggle with the next Coronavirus stimulus bill, you can fight for school meals    urge your U.S. Senators and Representative to support the revised HEROES (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions) Act (H.R. 8406) that would provide increased funding to school food authorities for the costs of operating school meal service during the pandemic. You can find your legislators at https://www.congress.gov/contact-us.

During normal times, a Child Nutrition Reauthorization occurs every five years or so. These have not been normal times and we are long overdue for a new CNR. When the next CNR is taken up in a new Congress, Slow Food USA will be there, fighting for universal free school meals, improved nutrition in school breakfasts, lunches, and summer meals, and longer lunch periods, so children have time to eat better school lunches.  Stand-by to join the fight.