In November 2011, Congress halted the implementation of regulations proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to improve the nutritional quality of food served in public schools. A rider on the recently passed agriculture spending legislation prevents the department from using any funds to implement proposed nutrition standard regulations for school lunch and breakfast programs. Elizabeth Vestal, Research Analyst at the Schroeder Center for Health Policy, answers questions about the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs and the recent controversy following Congress’ decision to halt funding for the proposed regulations.
What are the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs?
The school lunch program was originally created in 1946 to address malnutrition and under-nutrition amongst children following World War II. The School Breakfast Program was first created in 1966 as a pilot program and made permanent in 1975. Participation has grown exponentially over the past 65 years and today the program provides over 31 million students with lunch and over 11 million students with breakfast every day. There are approximately 50 million students currently enrolled in U.S. public schools which means that a majority of students receive at least one meal a day through the national school lunch and breakfast programs. Estimates suggest that participants in the school lunch and breakfast programs get more than one third of their daily dietary intake from school.
Why did the USDA propose new regulations for school lunch and breakfast programs?
The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-296) authorized the USDA to improve nutrition standards for food served as part of the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. Standards were last modified in 1995 to reflect the 1990 “Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” Dietary Guidelines are issued every five years jointly by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA. In January 2011, the USDA issued proposed regulations to implement the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act. To reduce childhood obesity and improve children’s diets, the USDA sought to align nutrition standards for school lunch and breakfast meals with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines by adding more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to school menus and reducing fat and sodium content which are known contributors to poor nutrition and obesity. Today, nationwide and in Virginia, more than one third of children are overweight or obese.
Why did Congress block the new USDA regulations?
The USDA’s proposed regulations incited much controversy, eliciting more than 133,000 public comments. Criticism focused on various aspects of the regulations including the necessity and effectiveness of new nutrition standards and the costs of the standards. In eliminating funding for the implementation of certain provisions in the regulations, Congress appeared to be responding to this criticism.
The new regulations would have limited starchy vegetable like potatoes, increased fruit and vegetable offerings, and required that all refined grains be replaced with whole grains.
Pam Dannon, a local Nutrition Education Specialist for the School Health Initiative Program (SHIP) and Jane Haley, supervisor of Child Nutrition Services for Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools believe that parts of the proposed regulations were contradictory or unwarranted. The limit on starchy vegetables, aimed at reducing French fry consumption, could have erroneously targeted nutritious foods like lima beans. Traditional French fries are certainly not healthy, but Dannon and Haley argue that potatoes are an important, inexpensive source of potassium and the new regulations failed to recognize that current preparation techniques offer healthier versions of the traditional French fry.
Industry leaders in the frozen pizza and French fry business argued that new regulations would have placed a huge burden on local school districts while doing little to encourage healthier eating amongst school-aged children.
The agriculture spending bill sparked a fervent debate in the media over whether pizza should be counted as a vegetable. The bill did not actually declare ‘pizza is a vegetable’ but rather defaulted to the current USDA regulations concerning school lunches that allow for the tomato paste used on frozen pizzas to be counted as a vegetable serving. Dannon comments that “the recent turmoil created by arguing about how much tomato paste on pizza counts for a vegetable is moot; child nutrition directors almost across the board do not count pizza for anything other than a bread and a meat alternate.”
New regulations aimed at requiring healthier foods served at school would, of course, cost money, approximately $6.8 billion over the next five years. Requiring more fresh fruits and vegetables and switching to whole grains would have been the main cost drivers. The FDA predicts costs would have increased by $.14 for each lunch and by $.50 for breakfast. For a nation in financial crisis, and a Congress with dismally low approval ratings, the cost of the proposed nutrition standards appear to outweigh the benefits. Currently, the school lunch program costs $11 billion annually and the school breakfast program costs approximately $3 billion annually.
Dannon and Haley agree that “too many parts of the new regulations were impractical to implement, not science-based, or proposed funding was inadequate and the resulting financial burden would have fallen on local child nutrition services operators.”
What is being done in Williamsburg-James City County to improve child nutrition?
Local governments manage their respective school districts, including the implementation of the school breakfast and lunch programs. School districts receive cash subsidies from the USDA by following - at a minimum - national nutrition standards and offering free and reduced price meals to children in need. Local school districts may improve nutrition standards within their own schools as long as they meet national USDA standards.
In the Williamsburg-James City County (WJCC) Public School system, Child Nutrition Services (CNS) works in partnership with the School Health Initiative Program (SHIP) to improve child nutrition in Williamsburg and James City County. Under the Child Nutrition Services Strategic Plan, WJCC public schools have eliminated fried foods, increased the variety of fruits and vegetables offered, and decreased trans-fat content in foods served.
WJCC public schools also incorporate nutrition education into their curriculum and through the partnership with SHIP provide classroom teachers with the necessary resources to teach children about the importance of a healthy diet.
Whether the USDA’s proposed nutrition standards for school lunches and breakfasts would have been effective at improving childhood nutrition is debatable but the costs associated with poor nutrition are large. Economists estimate that childhood obesity costs an additional $14 billion in medical care annually. Childhood obesity and the health problems that often follow into adulthood place a large burden on the nation’s medical expenses and affect economic productivity. In Virginia alone, annual healthcare costs related to obesity are $1.6 billion.
These staggering estimates are part of the impetus for updating school lunch and breakfast program nutrition guidelines. However, policymakers recognize that the cost of new school lunch and breakfast regulations would be significant and the potential for success in improving nutrition and curbing the growth in childhood obesity could be minimal. Providing healthy meals at school is a powerful strategy to address childhood obesity but there are a variety of recommended approaches that schools can use to improve students’ health. Methods recommended by the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth, for example, include increasing recess time, providing for more sports clubs, and implementing a comprehensive health curriculum. To effectively address childhood obesity, solutions should be multi-faceted and should target several areas of the food and physical environment.
by Elizabeth Vestal, Policy Analyst, Schroeder Center for Health Policy, [[bevestal]]