The Reauthorization Pot is Boiling

The Reauthorization Pot is Boiling

A new report from the Institute of Medicine will improve but complicate child nutrition standards in schools.

Want to hear a statistic that goes right to the heart of our nation's physical (and financial!) health? According to a recent editorial in The New York Times, “American families now spend more on overdraft fees every year than on books, breakfast cereal or fresh vegetables…”

That's as good an introduction as any to the subject of the overdue re-authorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which was last re-authorized in 2004 and expired this past September. It comes at a time when the latest data shows increasing numbers of school children are qualifying for and receiving free meals under the USDA school meals program even as USDA's reimbursement rates increasingly fall short of what it costs to provide those meals as they exist today.

In fact, many forces now in the wings will likely make that disparity grow even more pronounced if something doesn't change, one likely reason Congress has put off grappling with re-authorization until next year, after (we hope) the dust has cleared from the national debate over healthcare reform.

Many matters are still hanging fire from past re-authorization marathons: competitive foods offered outside of school cafeterias, the failure of much ballyhooed school wellness policies to become more than lip service in many districts, regional school meal funding shortfalls due to high labor and cost of living rates not taken into account in national reimbursement policies.

To complicate matters further, the National Institute of Medicine in mid-October added yet another ingredient to this boiling legislative and regulatory pot when it issued long-awaited recommendations to update USDA school meal nutrition standards.

Those readers most affected by the IOM recommendations will hear much more about them in coming months. The IOM report would have many significant implications for both food suppliers and operators that are too complex to review in a short column like this one. But if they are adopted by USDA as proposed, they will have a dramatic impact in coming years as they bring school meal nutrition into line with the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

On the meal planning side, they would significantly reduce the amounts of allowable sodium and saturated fat and set maximum and minimum caloric levels stricter than those in place today. They would shift meal planning to be more food-based than nutrient-based, (for example, by requiring that only up to half of a daily fruit requirement be provided by juice even as the required amounts and variety of fruits and vegetables be increased).

Whole and 2 percent milk would be eliminated as beverage options. Whole grain requirements would increase. Sodium would eventually be capped at 740 mg for a high school lunch (a level many school FSDs believe could prove impractical and unpalatable). More emphasis would be put on meal components actually selected by students as opposed to those offered to them in terms of making a meal eligible for reimbursement.

IOM makes it clear that such changes would raise the cost of school meals significantly, in some cases by as much as 25 percent, and that most school food authorities will be unable to absorb these increased costs. IOM recommends, but cannot require, that Congress provide significant increases in funding these programs for increased training and equipment costs as well as food.

The data that undergirds this report is extensive and detailed, and it will be years before the implications all shake out. In the meantime, child nutrition proponents (whether from advocacy groups or school boards, academia or households across the country) would do well to look at the big picture rather than at single factors like “whole foods” or “convenience vs. scratch” ingredients.

New generations of children deserve better quality school meals than most have now. That means a stronger emphasis on nutrition, but also on making meals that are appealing and tasty as well as nutritious. Achieving that will cost significantly more than we have allotted for this purpose in the past. Developing sound school nutrition policy also means addressing the school environment factors that often compete directly with and undermine the funding of what goes on in the school cafeteria.

2010 will be an important year for child nutrition. Stay tuned…