School meals get ugly

Is the debate over changing meal regulations harming school lunch programs’ image?

The gloves came off last week. After the USDA announced leniency for rules regarding whole-grain pasta, the U.S. House backed a bill that would allow districts to opt out of new school meal pattern regulations if they could prove the rules were a financial burden.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is asking for additional permanent changes, including eliminating the regulation that students must take a fruit or vegetable to have the meal qualify as reimbursable. The association says some leniency is needed to help struggling districts.

The first lady took offense, calling the proposed changes to school meals “unacceptable.” Michele Obama said the rollbacks would harm the health and well-being of the nation’s children.

The USDA finds itself in a tough position, as it tries to straddle both sides of the fence. The department, which has taken a fair share of grief regarding implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, is trying to appease both the White House and SNA.

The entire situation has done tremendous harm to the progress that has been accomplished in the past couple of years when it comes to the public perception of school meals. The industry is often the butt of bad jokes and, by and large, most people have no idea how healthy the foods provided by school meal programs actually are.

The public mudslinging in the media has opened up the child nutrition industry to negative dialogue. Most Americans have no idea what goes into the meals that are served in schools. The stories that are coming out regarding this squabbling often come with headlines saying something to the effect that changes are being made to make school meals less healthy.

Instead of making school meals political and battling it out in the press, wouldn’t it be better if all the key stakeholders got together and talked about what’s working and what’s not with regard to the rules? Nothing is perfect, and a law as complicated as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is no exception.

One of the prevailing complaints I heard when the law came out was that directors felt like their voices were not heard in the lawmaking processes. Here goes round two.

It’s time to stop, talk, listen, learn and work together, because what happened last week only hurts the industry and engenders animosity between the players involved. That, ultimately, does the school children no good.