by Ashley Colpaart, RD LD
When I was in middle school, I used to go through the snack line everyday for lunch and get an order of soggy fries and a styrofoam cup filled with hot, cheese product. The trick was to eat it quickly to prevent coagulation. My meal was washed down with a 20 ounce soda, procured from school-approved vending machines that, due to regulation, were only turned on during each 20 minute lunch period.
High school didn’t offer a much more nourishing experience. Socializing was always more of a priority than eating. As a young girl, noticeably aware of her body, I made attempts to eat from the salad bar line, only to find myself distracted by the ice cream, cookies, and pizza line, which was always considerably a faster option.
With these woeful lunches solidified in my memory, I anticipate the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) bill as a grand opportunity to make much needed changes to the lunchroom environment. As the appropriations bill for school nutrition programs, the CNR will define eligibility criteria for enrollment and reimbursement levels for meals. The bill also will set nutrition standards affecting the diets of millions of school children across the nation. While I was hoping for substantive change, the bill’s pre-arrival has me singing the Talking Head’s… “same as it ever was.”
On Wednesday, March 24, the Senate Agriculture Committee approved the CNR, or Healthy Hunger-Free Kids’ Act of 2010 (HHFKA), by unanimous consent. According to Chairwoman of the Senate Ag Committee, Blanche Lincoln (D-AR)’s website, her version of the bill is a “bipartisan, fiscally responsible bill making the largest investment in federal child nutrition programs to date.”
While the HHFKA does provide increased funding, the 4.5 billion allocated falls far short of Obama’s original 10 billion dollar proposal. To put these numbers in perspective, this “largest investment” amounts to a mere 6 cent increase per meal. As the famed Renegade Lunch Lady, Chef Anne Cooper puts it, 6 cents is “not even what it costs me to put a fresh apple on each lunch tray.”
The HHFKA also includes a provision to revise the national standards that will apply to food sold on campus including vending and a la carte fare. However, the language for these National School Nutrition Standards (NSNS) are said to be a compromise among the food and beverage industries and public health and education groups on standards for foods sold in schools.
While creating national nutrition standards is noble, we’ve been down this road before. The NSNS language gives authority to the Secretary of Agriculture to establish “science-based nutrition standards” consistent with the soon to be updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This year the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that 6 of the 13 members of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Committee, including the chair, received research support or consulting fees from food or drug companies with vested interests in the guidelines.
The NSNS standards are supported by the food industry because they level the playing field and secure their markets. As a representative for Mars Chocolate, US says, “Mars supports a new national school nutrition standard that will make it easier for schools and food manufacturers to work together to ensure children make smart decisions about the foods they consume.” But are the standards enough to really change our children’s relationship with food?
Industry has no problem reformulating processed foods. Flavored milk and sports drinks are touted as healthful alternatives to soda, yet both are comparable in their sugar content. In effect, redefining standards keeps industry in control of what kids are eating.
Real change in the CNR is possible by fully funding the existing provisions to establish school gardens and help cafeterias source locally through farm-to-school programs. Such action would have the combined benefits of improving nutrition, acquainting children with a greater variety of food, and educating children on how food is grown. Real change is possible through adequately training school service workers in cooking simple, raw ingredients and helping to modernize school lunch facilities. To accomplish this, the Senate will now have to put its money where kid’s mouths are. A fully funded CNR is crucial to changing the school food environment.