Tuesday, March 29, 2011

School Nutrition Association Protests USDA's Healthier School Meal Standards

USDA is going too far, too fast with efforts to revamp US cafeterias, according to organization that represents school food professionals...
The School Nutrition Association (SNA) today released a letter it sent to USDA that raises some big objections to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's proposed new rule for getting healthier foods into the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. The letter, from SNA president Nancy Rice, is the group's official position for the open comment period on the nutritional guidelines that Vilsack unveiled in January as part of the requirements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010. SNA is protesting that USDA is going too far, too fast with its changes to the program, which feeds more than 31 million children. (Above: The First Lady with kids during a Florida visit to unveil the Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools campaign)

SNA, a national nonprofit organization representing more than 53,000 school food professionals, has been a staunch supporter of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign. Members worked hard to support the passage of the Act, the legislative cornerstone of Mrs. Obama's initiative. SNA chefs were guest chefs at the White House in 2009, and last July, Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass traveled to Dallas to attend SNA's annual national convention, for a two-day love-in about healthy school meals. But the group gives a drubbing to USDA's proposed new rule for vegetable choices, lean meats, juices, and the requirement for whole grains in school meals.

SNA is also calling for a year's delay in the implementation of the new rule (explained in layman's terms in this post), which USDA hopes to have in place by Fall 2012. And USDA's time frame for sodium reduction is school food is too fast, the group said.

>The proposed new nutrition guidelines as published in the Federal Register

Food issues...
SNA wants USDA to change the proposed weekly requirement that legumes and dark green and orange vegetables be served in school cafeterias; the group wants children to be encouraged to eat these, rather than required to have these on their school meal trays.

"We must also advise you that some SNA members believe that children will not have sufficient time to consume the higher volumes of fruit and vegetables required by the proposed rule," Rice wrote, adding that "the consequence will be higher food costs for food items that may not be consumed."

USDA's new rule limits starchy vegetables--such as corn and potatoes--to one serving per week, and SNA wants this "ban" lifted. Starchy vegetables should be served in cafeterias more frequently, the group maintains.

"Limiting starchy vegetables will create unappealing and confusing menu options for students," Rice wrote. "Regulations that are too prescriptive limit menu creativity as many mixed dish entrees and salads contain starchy vegetables."

SNA also wants processed meats on school cafeteria menus.

"SNA supports the utilization of low-fat, lower-sodium meats. However, SNA is concerned that discouraging the use of processed meats is unnecessary and unduly restrictive," Rice wrote.

SNA also said it will be difficult to meet the USDA requirement to reduce sodium in school meals by more than 50 percent within ten years, because low-sodium canned goods are not widely available.

And some schools may find it difficult to meet the whole grains requirement, SNA said, because those products are hard to find in some areas of the country. The group also notes that FDA's definition of whole grain and USDA's definition of whole grain are different, too, and calls for this to be reconciled.

Delay implementation, SNA advises...
Fall of 2012 is too soon to get the new nutritional guidelines in place, according to SNA.

"SNA believes that it is prudent to consider delaying the mandatory implementation of the rule until school year 2013-14," Rice wrote.

SNA cites multiple reasons for their hoped-for delay. Chief among these: Professional school food workers, their schools, and school districts are simply not ready or able to comply with the proposed new federal guidelines...because they've never had to operate under such stringent guidelines before.

"SNA members do have concerns regarding their ability to meet the requirements of the proposed rule, especially as the impacts of the regulations are theoretical at this point, having never been piloted or studied in “real world” School Food Authorities (SFAs)," Rice wrote, adding that the timeframe is "ambitious," and pointing out that when changes were implemented in USDA's WIC program, the time frame for change was two years, rather than one.

SNA also calls for an interim, test period for the new guidelines to be experimented with "on the ground" in schools, followed by another open public comment period before USDA finalizes the nutritional guidelines.

Cost concerns...
The group also has concerns about costs of school meals, of course. Rice pointed out that while the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act provides schools an additional 6 cents per meal, USDA has estimated the cost of preparing a school lunch could rise by more than 15 cents if the proposed rule is fully implemented. And the cost of preparing a school breakfast could rise by more than 51 cents, SNA noted.

A USDA spokesman declined to comment on any of SNA's criticisms, but said that Secretary Vilsack will release the final rule by the end of the year. More than 3,100 comments have been received for the proposed guidelines, according to the USDA.

>Read SNA's full letter here.

The pubic comment period for the proposed rule closes on April 13. Links to public comment pages at Regulations.gov are in this post.

>The White House released a Before/After school lunch menu that demonstrates what kids are served now, and what they'll be offered when the new guidelines are in place

A video interview with Kass during his visit to School Nutrition Association's 2010 annual national convention in Dallas:

*Photo by Samantha Appleton/White House