Three months after President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law, FSD spoke with several operators, as well as SNA President Nancy Rice and Audrey Rowe of the USDA, to find out what they thought were the highlights and flaws of the legislation. Most thought the legislation was at least a step in the right direction, but David Binkle from Los Angeles Unified School District said the bill could have dramatic negative consequences.
“The focus [of the bill] was important to the health and welfare of all of our children, and as a result our elected officials were able to come together and allow USDA for the first time in 30 years a chance for some real reforms for school lunch and school breakfast,” said Audrey Rowe, deputy administrator for special nutrition programs, Food and Nutrition Service. “We are very pleased with the legislation and we are also extremely pleased with the support from the White House and first lady. This is a major accomplishment for kids this year.”
Rowe said the bill addressed two areas that the USDA saw as being particularly important—access and nutrition. “Right now too many kids don’t have access to school meals,” she said. “Many don’t participate in the program for a variety of reasons and this legislation allows us to develop not only healthy meals but also creative approaches to encourage children to actively participate. It provides wellness training and information to help children understand the importance of eating healthy and being healthy. It addresses the obesity issue and the major health conditions that we see in many of our children now that as they become adults they will have a very debilitating effect on them, and it allows us to cover an additional 115,000 children as a result of one of the provisions in regard with direct certification and MEDICAID to participate in the program.”
Rowe said she would have liked to see more federal funding devoted to breakfast programs, and acknowledged that increased plate waste could be an issue once menus have been altered to comply with the bill’s requirements. Rowe suggested getting students involved when implementing changes. “Students are the customer in this situation and they have some ideas. I think there are lots of ways to get them engaged in helping them to introduce some of the new food products.”
Rowe said directors should start with small changes when implementing the bill’s requirements. “The first thing they can start looking at is increasing the minimum amount of fruits and vegetables. They can offer more whole grains so the students begin to develop a taste for whole grains. They can offer only fat-free unflavored or flavored or low-fat unflavored milk. There are a number of companies that are coming up with low-sodium products that taste very good. They can restrict trans fats. I think there are small steps that even if you or I were trying to change our diets at home that when you look in the pantry you say these things have to go out and there are some new things that need to come in.
“Foodservice directors in schools around the country are doing some fantastic things in their schools,” Rowe added. “Unfortunately the focus has been on the things that schools are not doing. It is our hope, and certainly with the first lady’s involvement, that we will start being able to tell our story of some of the things the schools have done.”
Sound Off: What others are saying about the bill
Los Angeles Unified School District
David Binkle, deputy director of food service, had strong criticism for the bill. “We believe that the whole thing is fundamentally flawed,” he said. “There are two issues that are going to happen. One is the increased cost of the program. The second is the tremendous amount of waste that the program already generates from food that is being thrown away because the government requires kids to take all of this food. It’s just going to double. It’s criminal what we are doing with these programs and all of the requirements that we are putting on these federal programs. The bureaucracy just keeps getting worse and worse. Instead of allowing kids to take what they want, they keep forcing kids to take more than what they want.”
The district drafted menus that meet the bill’s requirements, and Binkle said he projects costs to increase and participation to decrease. “We’ve drafted menus for next year to meet these regulations and it’s going to cost us an additional 43 cents per meal to do it. In the 2009-2010 school year we did 123 million meals and we averaged 77 cents for that meal. So you’re talking about more than doubling the cost of food. Who’s going to pay for that? On top of that all these unfunded mandates that they keep adding, such as offering water, there is no funding for that. Who the heck is going to pay for all this water? Water costs money. On top of that, you have to provide a mechanism for the kids to drink it.”
Binkle expects a 20% decrease in participation next year to due the new menu changes because he said the students won’t accept the new menus. For example, breaded items, cheese-based items and pizza are all being eliminated from the proposed menus. He added that the district is moving away from meat-centric proteins to plant-based proteins like soy to meet the bill’s requirements.
“All you have to do is stand at the end of the cashier line and watch the kids cry about having to take the food that they don’t want in the first place. We believe that districts will get off the school meal program. We have all talked about this at some point in time. That doesn’t mean that we will, but we have to look at it because we cannot afford it. When people say [the bill is] a step in the right direction, we don’t believe that it is. We just think it’s more bureaucracy and more waste.”
School Nutrition Association
Nancy Rice, SNA president and director of the School Nutrition Division for the Georgia Department of Education, said the bill addresses some key issues for school nutrition programs, like competitive foods.
“School meals already meet federal nutrition standards, but food sold in school vending machines, snack bars and à la carte lines often do not,” Rice said. “Thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, foods that are served and sold in competition with the healthier options available will meet certain nutrition requirements. Also, the standards governing school meals will be strengthened. Parents and students can rest assured that all foods and beverages sold on the school campus are healthy choices."
Rice added that while the bill provides an additional 6 cents per meal, “the increase will not cover the cost of meeting the new standards for healthier school meals.”
Yuma Elementary School District, Arizona
“I think focusing on child nutrition issues is a good thing,” said Karen Johnson, director of child nutrition programs in this 9,700-student district. “I think trying to improve the program is moving in the right direction.”
Johnson said the bill accomplished most of what she hoped it would, but she wished the legislation addressed physical and nutrition education. “It’s very hard to educate students on good nutrition when you’re actually seeing them for seconds in the lunch line,” she said. “We have a lot of mandates to increase the fruits, vegetables and whole grains and no-fat milk. We have all the mandates to do that, but we are seeing no nutrition education and we are seeing physical education programs being dropped. In my crystal ball world, I wish those two had been addressed and mandated.
“I would like to have seen the fruits and vegetables that will now be mandated for students to take to stay at the current serving size until we get a handle on this,” Johnson added. “Offer versus serve is a very popular option and it was able to help us reduce plate waste. Now, that picture will change. But we’re also increasing the portion size. I don’t mind increasing it, but let’s get them used to taking those items at the current size while we get students used to having to take a fruit and vegetable.
"At breakfast, you are going to have a kindergartener who you are going to require to take a cup of fruit. You also have a high school student who is going to take that same cup of fruit. What happened to our age-appropriate sizes? There is a short window of time for breakfast. If the buses are running late, a student may have a few minutes to finish that fruit. I know where that fruit is going. I prefer it would go in the child, but there is simply not enough time for a younger students to eat that with all the other choices they have to take. I know this is moving in the right direction, I just wish that for a year or two we would keep that fruit and vegetables requirement, at least the serving size, what it is today.”
Johnson also had concerns about funding. “We have to proceed with common sense that says, ‘how can we afford this?’ Where does the money come from except out of the students’ pockets? Increasing meal prices for this community is going to be traumatic. We have 25% unemployment. Everybody is holding on by their fingernails to provide for their family. Let us make that decision [to increase meal prices] locally to what best fits our students.”
Linda Sceurman, director of nutrition and menu development, echoed Johnson’s concern for funding. “The biggest challenge will be funding the increased cost of the new nutrition standards,” she said. “The legislation provides a 6-cent increase in the meal reimbursement rate for lunches and no increase for breakfast. The Institute of Medicine’s School Meals report suggest that new nutrition standards could result in increased costs up to 25% for breakfast and 9% for lunch at a time when many districts are already struggling to meet budgets.
“Aramark was honored to participate with the president and the first lady in the signing ceremony of the new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act,” Sceurman added. “Over the past several years, we have been working diligently to ensure that our programs are aligned with improving childhood nutrition and maximizing participation in the child nutrition programs. This includes low- and non-fat dairy options, lean protein choices, access to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, assorted whole-grain products and limiting the use of fat, salt and added sweeteners.”
Oklahoma City Public Schools
At this Chartwells account, Steve Gallagher, director of child nutrition services, said he is “most excited about the streamlined process for access to the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program, of which 90% of Oklahoma Public Schools students are participants in free and reduced meals. Personally, I am excited about the USDA finally having authority over the entire school. This will enable schools to create a healthier school environment overall and not only in the cafeterias.”
Gallagher said the biggest change to comply with the bill’s requirements will be switching to food-based menu planning from nutrition standard menu planning.
“We feel that we are ahead of the curve, so we aren’t overly concerned about any one aspect of the changes,” he added. “The menu requirements will impact the districts that have not been as proactive in voluntarily switching to healthier products. Regardless of where districts stand today, these changes will help us elevate the standards above the public's current perception of school meals, far exceeding the outdated stereotype that we have from the past, which is typically not flattering and inaccurate. Overall, we are excited about the changes and anticipate that they will elevate us as an industry and take a major step forward in our battle against obesity and other health problems.”