Each month I will be compiling a short list of some of the more eye-opening takeaways from conversations with school food “insiders.” For this column, I’m including material from episodes that aired this summer and early fall.
While the delay of Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) 2015 can hardly be described as a good thing, it does give us more time to assess where we are and what’s changed in recent months with the emergence of new leaders, data and research. Recent episodes of “Inside School Food” cut through the noise of media-fueled controversy to take a nuanced look at what’s going on, who is saying what and what’s at stake.
1. How reauthorization actually works. In June, Jacqlyn Schneider, policy director for the Senate Agriculture Committee under ranking member Debbie Stabenow, led us through the process. She started with the basics—for instance, CNR’s complex architecture as an omnibus bill, and how different elements are bundled together and considered as a whole. Areas that enjoy strong bipartisan support “act as a foundation” for the rest, says Schneider, who feels “there’s a lot more consensus than the media covers”—on farm to school, investment in equipment and training and summer feeding in particular. That said, Schneider’s boss is standing her ground on the hotly contested mandatory fruits and vegetables. The senator is known for waving a shiny half-cup measure in hearings, “to highlight just how small a serving we’re talking about.” (CNR 2015 walk-through)
2. Why farm to school is politically popular. After a successful first round of USDA grants under CNR 2010, farm-to-school advocates are hoping to leverage strong bipartisan support to triple funding to $15 million. According to Helen Dombalis of the National Farm to School Network, “Since we introduced the Farm to School Act in February, we have continued to get more members of Congress from both sides of the aisle wanting to jump on and support it.” She attributes wide recognition of its “positive impacts on child health and farmer wealth,” and the contribution it can make to the success of school meals programs overall. (High hopes for Farm to School Act 2015)
3. The case for strong measures in dire straits. In West Virginia, children suffer from poverty levels, hunger and obesity well above the national average. “We typically rank first in everything bad and last in everything good,” says Rick Goff, executive director of the WV Office of Child Nutrition. To meet its troubling challenges, the state has been exceptionally assertive in its top-down efforts to win student acceptance of healthier menus. Following the release of the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations for child nutrition programs, in 2007, change was swift and unequivocal. “We even went after fundraising,” Goff says. “You can’t just have a healthy room in the building; the whole building has to be healthy.” Yes, “we got a few black eyes,” he admits, but “we now have more children eating than at any other time in the history of the program.” Goff testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee in May. (Learnings from West Virginia)
4. The case for “flexibility”—if we can agree on what it means. Jean Ronnei, the newly elected president of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), and the new VP, Dr. Lynn Harvey, says the SNA has never used the term “rollback.” It’s not interchangeable with their preferred word, “flexibility.” “We support strong federal nutrition guidelines,” insists Ronnei, while adding that some of the rules, in their minute specificity, “seem too prescriptive” and can hamper culturally sensitive menu planning. Harvey refers to SNA’s calls for flexibility on meal standards as “tweaks—minimal modifications that make foods more appealing to students.” One of these, she says, would be the lifting of the rule that makes fruits and vegetables mandatory, which she regards as interfering with children’s evolving, often fragile, relationships with healthy foods they’re not exposed to outside of school. (Towards a “robust HHFKA”: new SNA leaders speak out)
5. USDA: School meals are lessons, too. Dr. Katie Wilson, the new FNS deputy under secretary, is frank in her assessment of recent conversation over CNR within the child nutrition community. As one of 19 past SNA presidents who petitioned Congress to leave the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act untouched, she says “we’re talking too negatively.” Wilson emphasizes recent successes with 100 percent whole-grain rich pasta, biscuits and even grits. She defends mandatory fruit and vegetable servings: “We’re educating kids that that’s part of a whole meal. We make them take algebra because they need to know what it is; they need to be exposed to it. And I really believe that in foodservice, as well.” (USDA on CNR 2015: a conversation with Katie Wilson)
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