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Letter From The Editor: Secretary Vilsack to the Rescue

Opinion

In the long history of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), there have been plenty of issues to protest. I think it was those “fish sticks” we got in Catholic school that nearly extinguished my taste for seafood until I went through a recovery program on the Seattle waterfront.

Not everything was bad.  I remember liking what are still called “taverns” in the Midwest, or loose meat barbeques served on fresh buns, and dairy products and fruit cups were always good.

But by 9th grade or so, I must admit being among the small crowd that found other places to spend our lunch money, including a less than reputable local establishment that served beer to minors with hard boiled eggs for free.

Whatever we did back then, the NSLP just rolled on, making its adjustments and getting ever larger.  It’s now second only to food stamps as a federal government food and nutrition assistance program and operates in over 101,000 public and private schools and residential childcare institutions.

After a lot of “think tanking” and concern about childhood obesity, Congress passed the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act two years ago, and USDA enacted new standards that went into effect for the 2012-2013 school year.

More wholesome school meals, however, came with portion and calorie controls that have been stirring controversy in school lunchrooms from coast to coast. The most creative contribution to the national protest was the “We Are Hungry” video produced by Kansas high school students that has been viewed more than one million times on YouTube.

Unfortunately, the new USDA standards were never subjected to a “test kitchen” with some representative consumers before they were rolled out to the millions of children fed by NSLP each day.  Without taking that step – a routine one for the nation’s food industry – USDA was left with lots of incoming complaints from congressmen and senators about seemingly conflicting problems of hungry students and historic food waste.

Here is where credit is due to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. On Dec. 7, in letters to Congress, the Secretary essentially pulled the plug on what was an experiment in imposing calorie controls – something not done since World War II.

It’s not exactly back to square one, but pretty close. Vilsack recognized that the “top operational challenge” school lunch programs faced with the new standards was fitting grains and meat or meat alternatives in between the required minimums and maximums.

So, for the rest of the year, school districts can forget about the maximums and have more flexibility on portion size. The move is an acknowledgement on the part of the Secretary of those who say the standards amounted to a “one size fits all” approach.

With his action, Vilsack is making sure the NSLP is not going to fail under his watch. And the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.  It means Congress can leave the details of nutritional standards to USDA, and not start writing menu choices into law.

Vilsack has also taught kids a valuable civics lesson.  By raising their objections with specific details, students got the Secretary’s attention.  Dave Porter, superintendent of the Wallace County, Kansas school district, where the video was made, says the voices of his kids were heard.

Sandra Ford, president of the national School Nutritional Association, hailed the changes for returning flexibility to local school lunch programs.

The cynical among us have another view of what has happened. They call this another example of “politics over science.” Yes, that’s true – in a sense.  There is that basic concept about “the consent of the governed” that we might want to consider.

However, the reason I think the “politics over science” line does not cut it is that it would require giving credit to parties I don’t think deserve it. For example, I don’t give the American Meat Institute (AMI) or the North American Meat Association (NAMA) credit or blame for this one.

AMI and NAMA are good at a what they do, but neither was responsible for raising this issue to a boiling point  in local school lunch programs almost overnight.

That only happens if the concern is real.  What the “think tankers” produced in theory was started without field testing and failed miserably.  It left local school districts with huge costs, massive food waste and hungry and angry students.

© Food Safety News