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A Good First Step, But What’s Next in School Food Debate?

A Good First Step, But What’s Next in School Food Debate?

I really want to write about the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and the recent flurry of activity between the SNA and USDA, but I’m not sure what to say or even what to think. In mid-May, the School Nutrition Association publicly urged Congress to include language in the Fiscal Year 2015 Appropriations Bill to provide more flexibility for schools struggling to implement the increasing standards set by the Act.

The next day the USDA announced that schools demonstrating significant challenges to serving whole-grain rich pastas could continue serving traditional enriched pasta products for two more years. Great, I thought, that solves one of the biggest challenges of the new requirements coming this school year.

As appropriations bills were heading to subcommittee for debate, including the House agriculture one with a provision allowing schools losing money to opt out of the new standards, I got an email release from the USDA with statistics about the successful implementation of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act. Two days later, I got one from SNA refuting those statistics. Since, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack held a media call to reiterate the importance of the act, First Lady Michelle Obama planned to host a group of school foodservice directors to discuss the issues and SNA has continued to call for more flexibility from the White House.

The final Senate version of the USDA funding bill did not include the House waiver allowing cash-strapped schools to opt out, but it did call for the USDA to allow some flexibility with alternatives for whole-grain products and to provide more training and assistance for schools to offset plate waste and declining participation.

The House appropriations committee has yet to finalize its version. Once it does, the real fun begins. Both houses could pass individual spending bills later this summer or they could work behind the scenes for one that would be rolled into an overall spending bill. Either way, Congress has until Sept. 30 to pass an agriculture appropriations bill and odds are between now and then, your inbox will be flooded with more from both sides of this debate.

I hope my outside view of this doesn’t paint me as on one side or the other, because I’m not. I want what’s best for our children, who aren’t as healthy as they could or should be, which I bet is the same thing the First Lady, USDA, SNA and school foodservice directors would say. I understand the political process and the need for this back and forth, but let’s hope politics don’t get ahead of the process and an ultimate resolution can be reached.

If every school district had an unlimited budget, this wouldn’t be hard. The reality is they don’t, and change of this magnitude is never going to be easy. The relaxed standards on the whole-grain requirement are a step in the right direction and I hope an example that further compromise will follow.

I’d love to hear from school foodservice directors on how your district is handling these new requirements. Where do you stand on this and what would you like to see happen? Tell me your story. I’d love to print the best responses in the July issue.

Email me at [email protected].

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