Three girls eating lunch

Credit: Jane Meredith Adams/EdSource Today

A half a cup of a fruit or vegetable is required in every school lunch served in America, under federal regulations now up for review in Congress, and as far as the California School Nutrition Association is concerned, that requirement needs to go.

In a turn of events that belies California’s position as a national leader in mandating healthier school lunches – as well as the state’s role in growing nearly half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables – the California School Nutrition Association is pressing Congress to weaken the requirement that school lunches include fruits and vegetables, reduced amounts of sodium and more whole grains.

The association is lobbying to make a half cup serving of a fruit or vegetable optional, rather than required. It is also lobbying to stop any further reduction in sodium levels and to halt the increase in “whole grain rich” products, which would require that all breads, tortillas and rice be made with 50 percent whole grain. “We’re looking for flexibility,” said Dena England, president of the California School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit association of 2,000 members from school food service departments and additional food industry members.

“I am really surprised that they would take that position,” said Shirley Watkins, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. “California has always been a leader.”

Despite pushing for optional servings of fruits and vegetables, England said getting students to eat produce at lunch has not been an issue in the San Marcos Unified School District, where she is executive director of Child Nutrition Services. “If you have some type of education program, children will tend to select fruits and vegetables and try them,” she said. “In my district, we have a farmer’s market.”

Years before the U.S. Department of Agriculture took up the task of improving school nutrition, California banned trans fats in school lunches, eliminated the sale of fast food on campuses and removed soda from school vending machines. According to the California Department of Education, 100 percent of California school districts are in compliance with the new healthy meal regulations, which were introduced in 2012 and endorsed last year in a letter from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. In a 2012 California public opinion poll, 82 percent of students and 91 percent of parents supported the standards.

But the California School Nutrition Association does not. Last spring, the California association sent members to Congress to lobby against the fruit, vegetable, sodium and whole grain requirements, which are included in the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. The California School Nutrition Association also seeks to overturn a rule that prevents schools from offering the same item, such as pizza, for a la carte purchase every day. Congress missed its Sept. 30 deadline for reauthorization of the act, but funding for the meal programs continues, as does debate about the nutrition standards.

“I am really surprised that they would take that position,” said Shirley Watkins, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services and a past president of the national School Nutrition Association, the parent organization of the California association. “California has always been a leader.”

The California association’s members repeated the national group’s assertion that the regulations have put food service departments in financial straits and greatly increased the amount of waste. The financial fallout claim has been contested by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group, and food waste has been the subject of several studies, including one that found more waste and another that found less since the regulations took effect. The U.S. Department of Agriculture last month issued its own fact sheet stating that 95 percent of schools nationwide are meeting the updated nutrition standards and school lunch revenues are up.

The School Nutrition Association, with 53,000 school food service employee members as well as food industry members, has become the most public group to lobby Congress against the standards and is “pretty much insisting that all state-affiliated groups do the same,” said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president for nutrition and health for the United Fresh Produce Association, a trade group that represents producer growers and distributors.

The School Nutrition Association initially championed the standards, which were developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in consultation with the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine. The reforms, a signature priority of First Lady Michelle Obama, were adopted in the bipartisan Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

But the national association flipped its stance in 2014, and now is allied with Congressional Republican opposition efforts, led by U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., chairman of the House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee. In 2014, as Aderholt pushed for a bill allowing schools a one-year waiver of the “whole grain-rich” requirement, the School Nutrition Association supported the waiver and spent $406,000 on lobbying, more than double the $149,000 it spent on lobbying in 2013.

In protest, 19 past presidents of the School Nutrition Association signed a letter in May 2014 urging Congressional lawmakers not to listen to the organization they once led.

The School Nutrition Association’s credibility was damaged, too, when the Environmental Working Group, a watchdog organization, reported that a significant portion of the association’s revenue came from sponsorship fees from giants in the processed food industry, including Schwan Food and ConAgra.

Financial ties to the processed food industry are also strong at the California School Nutrition Association, where companies can pay $20,000 to co-sponsor the 2015 annual conference, $7,000 to have the company logo displayed during the keynote address or $400 to have a California student visit an exhibit booth with a chaperone and sample a company’s food, according to a flyer for the Nov. 5 conference in Ontario.

“I think it’s important to remember that the California School Nutrition Association represents food service directors and not necessarily the students,” said Tracey Patterson, legislative director for California Food Policy Advocates, an Oakland-based nonprofit organization.

“It’s what’s been happening since the beginning of time,” said Miguel Villarreal, food and nutrition services director for the Novato Unified School District and a veteran of more than 30 years in school food service work. “Big food manufacturers and beverage companies support the School Nutrition Association – they help fund conferences and many other initiatives,” he said. “It’s the same in every state.”

After working in Texas as a school food service director for 20 years, Villarreal began in Novato in 2002 determined to run his school food service department in a different way, he said. First and foremost was to change the groups he turned to for partnerships, he said.

“I reach out to industry when I need to speak to them,” he said, “but my partners today are students, teachers, parents, nonprofits, health organizations, community liaisons.” He continued his list of partners: “The city of Novato and all the work they’re doing, nurses, coaches. Did I say farmers? Definitely farmers. It’s an entirely different array of partners who are trying to improve nutrition and wellness in the community.”

As for the California School Nutrition Association, of which he is a member, he said, “They’re not speaking on behalf of me. I don’t think that weakening the standards are what we should be doing.”


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  1. Miguel Villarreal 11 months ago11 months ago

    The fruit and veggie conundrum is not difficult to comprehend IF you approach it from the stand point of an adult that knows better. School food service should be a modeling what many parents who know best are modeling at home with their kids meals. I have been around many children and adults over the years. 99.9% of the adults I have known strongly encourage their children to take a serving of fruit … Read More

    The fruit and veggie conundrum is not difficult to comprehend IF you approach it from the stand point of an adult that knows better. School food service should be a modeling what many parents who know best are modeling at home with their kids meals. I have been around many children and adults over the years. 99.9% of the adults I have known strongly encourage their children to take a serving of fruit and veggies and TASTE IT. I can’t even begin to tell you who how many times have I heard, “just take one bite”.

    That all changes when children arrive at school. In school, there is absolutely no one to encourage the child to “take one bite”. That is, unless you consider the effort of the Food Service staff. The Food Service staff is basically serving the same role as the parent at home. I hear many of our staff constantly encouraging the kids to try the fruits or veggies. Salad Bars in the majority of our schools have helped tremendously by allowing us to not only offer a variety of fruits\veggies, but also how we present them, whole, cut, sliced, mixed, etc etc. Hence, making it mandatory for the child to take the fruit or veggie is essential.

    There is absolutely no argument from any person or any organization that will say that fruit and veggies are not an essential part of a child’s diet. In fact, the USDA My Plate educates children to fill half of their plates with fruits and veggies. That just isn’t going to happen if you make fruits and veggies optional in schools.

    We do our best until we know better, than when we know better, we do better. Maya Angelou

    Guess what, we know better!

  2. Gary Ravani 11 months ago11 months ago

    Research shows kids have to learn at an early age what nutritious food tastes like to avoid being "picky eaters," let alone unhealthy eaters. Some years ago there was a successful movement to put McDonalds, Taco Bell, etc. into school cafeterias with the "rationale" that these foods (sic) were what kids would really eat. My sympathies go to the food workers and supervisors who work in today's school kitchens as their budgets and personnel have … Read More

    Research shows kids have to learn at an early age what nutritious food tastes like to avoid being “picky eaters,” let alone unhealthy eaters. Some years ago there was a successful movement to put McDonalds, Taco Bell, etc. into school cafeterias with the “rationale” that these foods (sic) were what kids would really eat. My sympathies go to the food workers and supervisors who work in today’s school kitchens as their budgets and personnel have been cut to the bone with other vital student services. What we have here is not just about student meals, but about the nearly thwarted efforts of the fast food and processed food industries to insert themselves into the schools.

    In these times of growing obesity at a young age and the consequent negative health outcomes, perhaps a little more “waste” is not a bad thing. And it is not a new thing that many school service offering are in a battle with poor student habits developed in highly stressed homes and in communities that are virtual healthy food wastelands.

    The key to the article is about where funding is coming from for the nutrition group (sic) survival. As the man said: Follow the money!

  3. Jonathan Raymond 11 months ago11 months ago

    Feeding children healthier more locally sourced food such as dairy products, vegetables, and fruits can happen in California within existing guidelines and reimbursement rates. Go see what we did in Sacramento. If children are a priority it can happen. We need to remember that in many school districts what we feed our children is the only food they eat. Don't they deserve to eat healthy foods too? It's all part of educating … Read More

    Feeding children healthier more locally sourced food such as dairy products, vegetables, and fruits can happen in California within existing guidelines and reimbursement rates. Go see what we did in Sacramento. If children are a priority it can happen. We need to remember that in many school districts what we feed our children is the only food they eat. Don’t they deserve to eat healthy foods too? It’s all part of educating and developing the whole child.

  4. Patricia Montague 11 months ago11 months ago

    School Nutrition Association supports healthy changes for students and is asking Congress to adequately fund school meals, while maintaining calorie and fat limits, mandates to offer larger servings and wider variety of produce, and reasonable sodium and whole grain requirements. These rules combat childhood obesity and promote healthier diets. However, a few of the rules have backfired. Offering a rainbow of fruit and vegetables and encouraging students to take them is a recipe for success, but … Read More

    School Nutrition Association supports healthy changes for students and is asking Congress to adequately fund school meals, while maintaining calorie and fat limits, mandates to offer larger servings and wider variety of produce, and reasonable sodium and whole grain requirements. These rules combat childhood obesity and promote healthier diets.

    However, a few of the rules have backfired. Offering a rainbow of fruit and vegetables and encouraging students to take them is a recipe for success, but forcing every student to take one, whether they intend to eat it or not, has frustrated students and spoiled what should be a positive, healthy choice.

    It also contributes to the increased costs hampering efforts to improve school meals. Yes, 100% of California schools are in compliance with current rules (the law requires it), but far too many are losing money and student participation as a result. USDA estimates the rules added 10 cents to the cost of preparing every lunch and 27 cents for every breakfast, but to help schools meet the rules, Congress only provided 6 additional cents for lunch and nothing for breakfast.

    Lost revenue and higher costs impede efforts to invest in scratch prepared meals using fresh, whole ingredients. Many schools that have worked for years to improve menus have been forced to bring juice and canned fruit back to the menu because they can no longer afford fresh fruit. This was not the intent of Congress or USDA.

    Congress must provide schools 35 cents more for each school meal served and reasonable flexibility to sustain school meal programs and bring students back to healthy school meals. Get the facts at SchoolNutrition.org/PositionPaper.

    Patricia Montague, CAE
    Chief Executive Officer
    School Nutrition Association

  5. ann 11 months ago11 months ago

    Talk about a lack of objectivity in an article. The bias is so obvious and heavily weighted against the Food Service Directors. Any of us who work in schools sees daily the enormous food waste, including the tons of fruit and vegetables that students are required to take and then must be thrown away along with gallons of milk, when they don't eat it. What's really helping the bottom line in Food … Read More

    Talk about a lack of objectivity in an article. The bias is so obvious and heavily weighted against the Food Service Directors. Any of us who work in schools sees daily the enormous food waste, including the tons of fruit and vegetables that students are required to take and then must be thrown away along with gallons of milk, when they don’t eat it. What’s really helping the bottom line in Food Service? Breakfast in the classroom which allows districts to capture significantly more (virtually every student’s) Federal breakfast reimbursement despite the massive food waste that occurs during that meal as well.

    Replies

    • Jane Meredith Adams 11 months ago11 months ago

      Hi Ann. I'd love to know more about what you've seen in food waste. The studies have been mixed about whether more waste is being created. This June 2015 study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/chi.2015.0019 found more fruit being eaten and no increase in plate waste. From what I've read, there has always been a lot of plate waste with school meals. But I know … Read More

      Hi Ann. I’d love to know more about what you’ve seen in food waste. The studies have been mixed about whether more waste is being created. This June 2015 study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/chi.2015.0019 found more fruit being eaten and no increase in plate waste. From what I’ve read, there has always been a lot of plate waste with school meals. But I know each district is different. Please feel free to be in touch. I’m at jadams@edsource.org.
      Jane

      • el 11 months ago11 months ago

        I would love to see EdSource do an article outlining the implementation of these standards and explicitly listing some of the paperwork and rules that surround them. I think that this may be a factor in some of the opposition - not necessarily that the food service directors at schools don't want to serve healthy meals and help the kids make healthy choices, but perhaps instead that they feel that the compliance regimen takes time … Read More

        I would love to see EdSource do an article outlining the implementation of these standards and explicitly listing some of the paperwork and rules that surround them. I think that this may be a factor in some of the opposition – not necessarily that the food service directors at schools don’t want to serve healthy meals and help the kids make healthy choices, but perhaps instead that they feel that the compliance regimen takes time and money and attention away from meeting the needs of the kids.

        I understand that the net effect in some cases had been that is that schools go to large food service companies specifically because they have trouble finding someone who is both skilled in food service meal preparation and with the computer skills to keep the reporting up to date.

        From my limited knowledge of the situation, the regulations as written could do with another pass to make sure that they are completely in support of the true end goal: giving kids access to delicious, healthy meals that they will be pleased to eat. If the rules make it easier to buy frozen school meals from Conglomo than to roast some local green beans and serve salads, then they aren’t meeting our goals, regardless of what they say.

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