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Letter From the Editor: It’s All About the Money, Fruit Cup

Opinion

When it comes to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the partisan brouhaha has been about the menu. Later this year, however, Congress will reauthorize the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, mostly by agreeing to pick up the check.

The outline of just such an ending became clear this week when the School Nutrition Association (SNA) put most of its cards on the table. In doing so, it became clear that reauthorization is not about how many forced servings of fruit cups there is going to be, but who pays for them.

Prospects for such an ending started to come into focus late last year when SNA — representing about 55,000 local school lunch programs — announced that the new federal standards had imposed $1.22 billion in new food, labor, and administrative costs on state and local governments. And, their numbers came from USDA itself, written into the 81 pages of rules.

SNA followed up with a survey of its members, showing that only 18 percent expected their local school lunch programs to break even this year. More than half expected to be operating in the red, meaning they’d have to ask their school board for an infusion of cash from the local fund for classroom instruction.

And, this past week, SNA’s 2015 position paper called for a hike of 35 cents per meal reimbursement for breakfast and lunches served by local districts to cover those added costs identified by USDA to meet the new federal requirements.

It also suggests a handful of changes in the name of flexibility, including eliminating the requirement that a student must take a half cup of fruit or vegetable with every meal, which, in turn, increases waste and costs for the local districts.

A spokesman for big produce immediately jumped on that one, expressing being “deeply disappointed” that “SNA has chosen its ill-advised fight against serving kids more fruits and vegetables in the schools.”

It’s amazing to me that the produce industry in the land of the free wants to promote its offerings with forced servings next seen, too often, in a garbage can. But this is the same lobby that killed most federal testing of fresh fruits and vegetables, so take concern for “the children” with the appropriate skepticism.

As for the “lunch ladies,” they want kids to eat the fruits and vegetables they take. The few other changes they’re asking for look like what happens whenever you separate theory from practice. SNA’s Patricia Montague says the organization supports the federal nutrition standards, including the calorie caps, increased fruits and vegetables, and various mandates.

SNA would like to stay at the reduced “Target 1” sodium levels and allow at least half of the grains offered for lunch or breakfast be whole grain-rich so bagels or tortillas could be served. They also want food that may be included in a reimbursable meal made available as a snack sale.

Thus, the money question is 98 percent of this reauthorization. It will be noisy and partisan for a while yet, but then some adults will go into a room somewhere and figure it out. I hope the “forced servings” lobby won’t be included, but they will be.

After Congress passed, and, on Dec. 13, 2010, the president signed, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act of 2010, the NSLP started to shrink. It is not costing the federal government as much as expected, or meeting USDA’s enrollment projections.

SNA says more than 1 million students have dropped out of the NSLP, but that number appears to be closer to 2 million when compared with the starting point for the new nutrition law. NSLP reports 30.3 million enrolled in fiscal year 2014, with about two-thirds being eligible for free lunches.

Also, at the start of all this, the total number of schools enlisted in the voluntary NSLP reached 102,051. We could not find a current number from the NSLP itself, but its closely allied Food Research Action Center reports that 98,433 schools were enlisted for the 2012-2013 school year.

That represents shrinkage of 3,618 schools prior to the 2013-2014 school year when reports of schools leaving the program seemed to pick up. This loss of entire schools is responsible for USDA’s projections for total meals served being off by at least 600 million as total meals served has not grown, but fell below 5 billion.

Maybe Congress wants a less-than-national school lunch program with a captive student body for free lunches, but no off-campus options. Maybe the White House is OK with it as well. If the two cannot come together and pay for the nutrition standards they imposed five years ago, we’re probably going to see more schools in the exit line.

Oh, and one more thing: Might we have a produce-testing program for fruits and vegetables purchased for the National School Lunch Program? We could call it the Microbiological Data II program.

© Food Safety News