The pizza served to kids for lunch in the Park Hill School District in Missouri has whole-grain crust and is topped with low-calorie, low-sodium cheese.
The pizza complies with federal nutrition standards for school meals that the U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced in 2012 to combat a nationwide epidemic in childhood obesity.
But Ronda McCullick, Park Hill’s director of food service operations, frets that she might have to stop serving pizza altogether in order to meet strict targets for reduced sodium by 2017.
Salad dressing, condiments, homemade breads, turkey pot pie – even cheese toppings on tacos – might be off the table if already lowered sodium levels go down even more, McCullick says.
With the 5-year-old law that mandated the standards up for renewal this month in Congress, some school districts and lawmakers are pushing to relax the requirements to restrict salt, serve only whole grain-rich products and force kids to take a half cup of fruits or vegetables with every meal.
“We’re just asking for moderation,” said McCullick, a registered dietician. “It’s not that we want to feed them unhealthy items. We don’t want to do that by any means. . . . I’m very supportive of 90 percent of the regulations, but there has to be some common sense and some reality checks along the way.”
Any reauthorization package will have to go through Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and a vocal proponent of bringing more flexibility to school lunches. His staff says he’s working on a bipartisan proposal with Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, but the details are still being developed.
“I have met with school nutrition directors and eaten breakfasts and lunches with students all across Kansas,” Roberts said in a statement. “One word keeps coming up – flexibility. To me, flexibility means that we need to protect the impressive improvements already reached by many school districts and provide support to other school districts to reach the same level of success.”
Agriculture Secretary Vilsack warns that if more flexibility means rolling back the standards, it’s the wrong move for children.
There may be politicians who are not happy with a program the government is directing just because they don’t like the government generally and they may be using this as a basis.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
“At the end of the day when Congress looks at reauthorization, they need to do the right thing by allowing us to continue down this road and not taking us back down the road to the day when there was too much fat, too much sodium, too much sugar and not enough wholesome foods” in school meals, Vilsack said in an interview.
Congress has until the end of September to reauthorize the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. The school meal standards that resulted from passage of the 2010 law were a signature achievement for the Obama administration, and for Vilsack personally.
The former Iowa governor is not about to see those standards gutted without a fight. He is vigorously defending them in a flurry of interviews and public appearances leading up to this month’s legislative deadline.
“I struggled with weight issues all my life and was made fun of, bullied because of it,” Vilsack said. “I know what kids go through when they deal with stuff like that. I know that it takes them off their game relative to learning. Those memories are still very clear in my mind, and I don’t want youngsters to have to handle or go through that kind of thing that I went through.”
$190.2 billion Estimated annual cost to treat the national obesity epidemic.
Vilsack says the standards are working. He points to a 2014 Harvard School of Public Health study that showed kids now eat 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch.
Another study, from March 2015 by the University of Connecticut, found that students ate 13 percent more of their entrees and 20 percent more vegetables in 2014 than in 2012.
Asked about a University of Vermont study published in August that reported a 56 percent increase in food waste, Vilsack rolled his eyes.
“Seriously, that was (data from) two schools,” he said. “It was two schools. Do you know how many schools there are in the country?”
He acknowledged, however, that some districts are struggling. And he pointed out that the USDA has been responsive in the past to concerns raised by students and school officials.
The agency announced last year, for example, that schools could put off serving whole grain-rich pasta because the product wasn’t holding together well when cooked in large quantities. Schools also can apply for waivers to delay adding more whole-grain versions of other foods to menus.
A Team Up for Success program created by the USDA links succeeding schools with struggling schools to mentor them, and grants are available to help schools buy new food service equipment.
And this week, Vilsack announced an additional $8 million in grants to help schools implement the standards and provide more training and nutrition education for food service workers.
Vilsack said he would advise President Barack Obama not to approve any legislation that weakens the standards.
But in districts like Olathe Public Schools in Kansas, which has seen a 9 percent drop in the number of elementary students participating in the meal program, officials argue that it doesn’t matter how healthy the food is if kids won’t eat it.
“I’m looking at numbers. I’m not making this up. We are losing these kids,” said Cindy Jones, business management coordinator for food services at Olathe Public Schools.
Participation in the National School Lunch Program fell about 4 percent nationwide between 2011 and 2014, according to USDA data, although more students are taking advantage of school breakfast and free and reduced-price meals.
The dip in lunch participation “is a combination of charging them too much and not offering them foods with flavors that they like,” said Jones, who also serves as legislative chair of Kansas School Nutrition Association and has testified before Congress about her belief that the standards should be adjusted.
“The changes we want to see in the standards aren’t big changes” she said. “They’re still very healthy. We just want to make changes that make sense.”