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WASHINGTON – From his powerful perch as chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, GOP Rep. John Kline is trying to slow down implementation of new rules requiring school breakfasts and lunches to have more fruits, veggies and whole grains and less simple starch and sodium.
The multiyear roll out of the new nutritional standards mandates that schools limit calories, restrict salt and give every student some vegetables or fruit — even if they don’t ask for it. Next school year, there will be more rules on what schools can sell outside the federally reimbursable meal programs, too, including the snacks sold in vending machines and school stores.
Proponents of the new standards say they are trying to shift eating habits, that the days of students getting piles of french fries and pizza for lunch should be over, given climbing obesity and diabetes rates.
“Now that our nation is finally beginning to see a leveling off of obesity rates, it is not the time to go backwards and diminish the nutritional quality of school meals,” said Kevin Concannon, an undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in a statement. “As a result of the updated standards, children are consuming more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low fat dairy.”
Opponents, including Kline and the powerful food lobby that donates money to him, say the new rules are onerous and expensive for school districts and there is more food waste when students are required to take foods they would not otherwise choose.
The increasing infighting comes even as Minnesota has actually become one of the best states for implementation of the new rules so far. Some 93 percent of the state’s schools are in compliance so far with the new standards, according to the USDA. Despite this, some of the state’s largest food companies, including General Mills and Schwan’s, are challenging the new standards through interest groups and campaign contributions on Capitol Hill.
“It’s a very, very big overreach of the federal government,” Kline said. “Being in compliance doesn’t necessarily mean everything is going well.”
Republicans have boosted efforts recently to halt the new standards in their tracks. House appropriators may insert language in next year’s spending bill that would stop requirements for increased whole grains and a few other measures. This worries federal agriculture officials and nutritional proponents that the new rules — still squarely in the early and tough implementation stage — won’t be able to take hold.
“Change isn’t easy,” said Jessica Donze Black, a director at Pew Charitable Trusts, which is urging that the new standards stay in place. “Sometimes I think there’s a sense that, ‘Gosh this is going to take work.’ But there are ways to do it. We need to continue to move forward.”
The School Nutrition Association, a group representing school cafeteria workers and backed mostly by big food companies, has asked for a reprieve from the standards, saying the rules are becoming one of the reasons some students drop out of the school lunch program.
Nationally, 1.2 million fewer students took school lunches in the 2012-2013 school year than in 2010-2011. The USDA says a number of factors, including a depressed economy, drive down lunch participation.
Exiting the system
At Wayzata High School, officials are so unhappy with the new standards they are doing away with the national school lunch program completely next school year.
This means the school will not get federal or state reimbursements for school lunches. This is possible because Wayzata is an affluent school, where fewer than 15 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Mary Anderson, who works as a culinary supervisor there, says the school will charge students $3.10 for a lunch that will have more calories and more starches and other foods banned under the federal guidelines. Wayzata is a closed campus, which means the 3,300 high school students have to eat at school.
“The kids weren’t getting enough food, they weren’t full,” Anderson said, noting the school has done focus groups with parents and students on the issue.
“We really realized that we were not meeting the consumer needs.”
The USDA points out they changed rules earlier this year to allow schools to serve larger portions of lean protein and whole grains after hearing complaints that some kids — particularly athletes — were hungry.
Kline said it is unfair to link campaign contributions from General Mills to his side in the current debate.
Early on in 2011 comments to the USDA, General Mills weighed in against certain portion size restrictions and asked for a delay in mandatory implementation. The company’s Political Action Committee and employees have donated about $75,000 since 1997 to Kline, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The chairman cowrote a letter in February to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, asking that the secretary grant waivers to school districts that wanted more flexibility. Vilsack declined, saying he lacked the legal authority.
Kline, who said schools are “looking for relief now,” said he is eager to see how House appropriators handle the new rules. Otherwise, he said he will work on it during the reauthorization next year, including granting the agriculture secretary the authority needed to give school districts more latitude to implement the standards the way they see fit.
“I think everybody wants to make sure that our disadvantaged kids have access to nutritious meals, but that doesn’t mean we have to have rigid mandates,” he said.
“I think we need to have a little more confidence and trust in the states and districts.”
Brenda Braulick is Minnesota’s branch president of the School Nutrition Association. She also works for the Sartell-St. Stephen School District and says she sees food waste every day from kids who don’t want a fruit or vegetable, yet are forced to take one. She also says the costs to her district have spiked — the USDA reimburses districts an extra 6 cents for fruits and vegetables that actually cost about 25 to 30 cents per student. In Braulick’s district, uneaten food goes to a nearby hog farm.
“We can easily see what the students are throwing away,” she said.
“What we’re seeing is a lot of whole fruit, whole apples, whole bananas, not even with a bite taken out. To force a kid to take it doesn’t do any good if we’re feeding the pigs well.”
Bertrand Weber from Minneapolis public schools agrees with Braulick on the increased costs and would love more cash from the federal government.
But he says he doesn’t see food waste because cafeteria workers chop up apples and oranges into wedges for the little kids, which makes the fruit more appealing.
“We are not seeing an increase in food waste whatsoever,” said Weber, director of culinary and nutrition services. “They like it.”