Anyone who thought Congress was out of it once it adopted the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act more than a year ago probably does not understand the money and complexity involved in new nutritional standards for school lunches.

USDA’s new nutritional standards for the National School Lunch Program are getting their first test kitchen treatment as local districts around the country start the 2011-12 school year.   They are creating some interesting controversies:

  • Upsetting school lunch price increases for children who do not quality for free lunches because the new rules allow districts to charge their cafeterias for cleaning, trash removal, electricity, and water that previously were often covered in general school overhead.

  • Questions about free lunches to all if an area served by a school has a 40 percent or higher poverty level. Not charging anyone in poverty areas is said to prevent free school lunches from having a stigma. Free lunches are now going to all in the entire city of Detroit. 

  • Changed menus from last year, There is no more fried food in Albemarie County, VA schools,  Students are being offered “leaner and greener” options, including nice hummus platters supplied by a local vendor.

USDA’s interim rule for the new nutritional standards was spread over 76 pages of the federal register, which is infamous for its tiny type size.  It brought in 132,000 comments that USDA needs to review in order to complete the final rule. 

Typical of the official comments was one that came in from an Arkansas Healthy Schools official.  She said a weekly seafood requirement could be “cost prohibitive” and “many parents are not going to recognize nuts, seeds, and soy products as a weekly substitute for   meat.”

“Effective behavioral change has to occur with small incremental steps,” she said.

And some with concerns about the new standards are not stopping at USDA’s doorstep.  Producers of white potatoes, corn, lima beans and green peas do not like the one cup per week limit for their combined inclusion in school lunches nor do they like being banned from the breakfast program.

Also not liking it are:  U.S. Senators Mark Udall, D-CO; Mike Crapo, R-ID, James S. Risch, R-ID; Susan Collins, R-MA; Olympia Snow, R-MA; Ron Wyden, D-OR; Kelly  Ayotte, R-NH; and John Hoeven, R-ND.  They’ve signed a letter, not to USDA, but to the chairman and ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee that writes the USDA budget.

Representing areas that grow potatoes, beans and peas, the eight senators say “unnecessary limitations on healthy and affordable vegetables can lead to a needless escalation in costs of the school meals programs.”   

They claim the new standards are going to impose “up to $7 billion” over five years, mostly on state governments and local school districts. Previously, it’s been reported that the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act came with an additional price tag over the same five year period of $4.5 billion for added federal contributions to school lunches.

The bipartisan Senate block, which includes both liberals and conservatives, wants to include language in the Fiscal Year 2012 USDA budget that would prohibit any unnecessary discrimination “against certain vegetables, including white potatoes, corn, lima beans, and green peas.”