Thursday 18 Sep 2014

Information and opinions presented here do not always represent the views of the American Heart Association.

Attempts to change standards for school foods stalled

Published: 2:22 pm CDT, August 15, 2014

Attempts to change standards that make school foods healthier stalled out this summer in both chambers of Congress leaving the current guidelines in place as the school year begins.

While the House Appropriations Committee approved language in their version of the agriculture spending bill that would allow schools to opt out of all meal standards established by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the bill was pulled from the floor. The Senate agriculture spending bill has language that could to delay sodium and whole grains standards. This bill has also stalled.

No changes to the law means that school districts that were dragging their feet will be required to stick with the standards put in place by the act.

“More than 90 percent of the country has implemented the new lunch standards in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act,” said Helen Phillips, American Heart Association volunteer and senior director of school nutrition for public schools in Norfolk, Virginia.  “Students are used to (it) or are on their way and the food industry has spent millions reformulating, so no changes need to be made.”

Results from a peer-reviewed study in Childhood Obesity showed that a majority of students actually like the new, healthy lunches and 63 percent of students are no longer concerned about the changes.

Healthy lunch supporter first lady Michelle Obama spoke about school lunches at a recent Drink Up event in the White House.  She said that school districts need to market the healthier meals to students for greater participation.

“Make no mistake about it: When we make a real effort to promote healthy products, when we put as much energy and creativity into marketing healthy products as we do for junk food, then kids actually get excited about these products and families actually buy them and consume them,” Mrs. Obama said.

The First Lady said those school districts that promoted the healthier meals have done well since ongoing implementation of the Act began during the 2012-2013 school year.

“They didn’t just sit back and say, ‘Well, the kids like junk food so let’s just give ‘em junk food.’ Instead they embraced higher standards and more nutritious options and they worked hard to get the kids excited about them,” Mrs. Obama said at the event.

Statistics from the Childhood Obesity study showed that rural areas generated the highest numbers of complaints about the meals at first and students in those areas purchased and consumed fewer meals.  Some believe it is due to the higher cost associated with bringing in the healthier ingredients.

To combat that issue, Senators suggested more locally grown fruit and vegetables. 

One concern about the new standards is the cost that can sometimes be associated with some healthier foods. Scott Clements, director of the Office of Healthy Schools and Child Nutrition for the Mississippi Department of Education, during a recent Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee hearing, said that one way they are making a difference in Mississippi is by using locally grown produce. 

“During school year 2014-2015, over $1,000,000 of locally grown produce will be delivered to Mississippi schools,” Clements said in a committee hearing.  “Some of the items scheduled for delivery to schools include watermelons, tomatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, blueberries, and broccoli.”

Detroit also served as an example of how to reduce costs during the committee hearing.

With about 87 percent of the children in Detroit being eligible for free school meals, Betti Wiggins, executive director of Detroit Public Schools Office of Food Nutrition, decided to plant more than 70 gardens to grow produce and teach students the importance of healthy eating.    

Wiggins said the changes are truly making a difference in the lives of the children and employees.

“It is the improved nutrition standards that have allowed us to introduce new equipment in our kitchens … in addition to the new equipment, our food distribution partners are finding the products we need to provide our children the quality food they need and deserve,” she told the Senate panel.  

Wiggins added that we all must look at the benefits that the act has brought us rather than focusing on the challenges it has created.

The American Heart Association supports healthier school foods and is working to defend nutrition standards.

“This work will be particularly important when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is up for reauthorization next year and components of all the programs will be reviewed,” the American Heart Association said in a statement.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.