Every five years Congress has the opportunity to make changes to the child nutrition programs through the Child Nutrition Reauthorization process. Currently, Congress is debating legislation to determine what changes should be made. FSD talked with Katie Wilson, school nutrition director at Onalaska School District in Wisconsin and past president of the School Nutrition Association, to find out her thoughts on the reauthorization.
With reauthorization coming up, what are the major things you would like to see happen?
In reauthorization we must stop focusing on good food/bad food and start getting serious about reducing the paperwork. The paperwork really has very little meaning and some of the rules for free and reduced forms limit access to meals. Nutrition standards based on the science of nutrition combined with realistic acceptability will help improve program quality. Professional standards for those running programs are also essential.
What do you expect will happen with the reauthorization bill? What items or programs do you think will be changed, added or removed?
Making any statement about what will happen with reauthorization is putting the cart before the horse. It seems like every legislator who eats is an expert in nutrition and school meals. Everyone wants to be a part of solving childhood obesity—it is feel-good legislation. I only hope that they spend time talking to the experts before they craft legislation.
Why is this year’s reauthorization more important than in years past?
Reauthorization is very important this year because we have the public's attention. Never before have we had so much attention about school meals. School lunch has been the target of negative impressions and negative press for many years. It has been blamed for the childhood obesity problem, when in reality we have had portion control for more than 50 years. We follow the dietary guidelines for Americans on our reimbursable lines. Now that we have the nation's attention, people are learning that we [provide meals] with very little money and in competition with all of the clubs, bake sales and other fund raisers. A la carte sales are simply to help float the school lunch and breakfast lines. Reauthorization 2009 has many stakeholders at the table and great discussion is going on and people are educating themselves to the complexity of these programs. When you have the attention of the White House, maybe something significant can really happen that changes the whole school environment.
There has been a lot of negative press about school meals in the past couple of months. How can school foodservice directors use the reauthorization process to counter some of the negative press?
Reauthorization is helping to educate the public on the mechanics of schools meals. When you sit down with some of the critics and explain the program is burdened with regulation, they begin to see that in most cases the foodservice directors are doing the best they can within financial and political constraints.
One of the things being proposed in the reauthorization is Senate Bill 934, which would give the USDA broad reach to regulate all food sold in schools and not just food sold in the federal school meal programs. Are you for or against this and why?
The Secretary of Agriculture should have regulatory control over the entire school building from bell to bell. It is a long time in coming. You cannot write legislation that "encourages" others in the building to adhere to nutrition standards; it will not happen. Money is tight, and food sells easily. We cannot compete against the coaches and clubs that are selling everything imaginable. Who wouldn't buy from their peers? It is also a very mixed message to young people: A cupcake is OK from your club sales but not OK in the school nutrition line. We either embrace school wellness as a whole—knowing it is what is best for kids—or we should forget it all together. One single, strong message about health is needed throughout the school building so students learn to make healthy choices outside of the school building.