As School Year Ends, Will Congress Fail Lunch?

June 11, 2014
Karen Perry Stillerman
Sr. Strategist and Sr. Analyst, Food & Environment Program

UPDATE (June 12, 3:40 p.m.): The House vote on the school nutrition waiver, expected last night, was postponed. According to reporting by the New York Times today, the vote has been delayed “until sometime next week,” although that could change. Meanwhile, the public can keep writing to Congress in support of healthy school meals!

A Congress that is already routinely failing science is poised to flunk an even simpler school subject: lunch. As early as this evening, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on a bill to fund the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including school nutrition programs. Shockingly, the bill they’ll vote on contains a provision that would roll back new healthy school food standards, just as they are starting to bear fruit.

The food industry strikes back

It was just four years ago that Congress upgraded school nutrition standards. The changes—which were championed by the Obama administration and First Lady Michelle Obama, but also passed on bipartisan votes—reflected growing public awareness of a national childhood obesity epidemic. In particular, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required that school meal offerings include more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and less salt and fat.

CC image courtesy of Lance Cheung/U.S. Department of Agriculture

CC image courtesy of Lance Cheung/U.S. Department of Agriculture

Although the notion of feeding healthy food to the nation’s children seems unassailable, there are (of course) forces with a vested interest in pushing junk food to school kids. Remember the “pizza is a vegetable” debacle of 2011. And now there’s a renewed backlash from the law’s opponents (not coincidentally, backed by large processed food companies), seeking a broad exemption that would allow schools to opt out of the healthy food standards. They argue, variously, that the requirements are too expensive, that kids don’t like them, and that they’re simply feeding healthy food to the lunchroom trash cans.

But these arguments run contrary to both the facts and to common sense.

Healthier school lunch standards are working

Let’s start with the facts. This past March, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health published a study that examined the lunchroom choices and associated “plate waste” of more than 1,000 children in a low-income, urban school district in Massachusetts, before and after the standards were implemented. The study, which appeared in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, showed that kids were eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch. The authors concluded:

Although food waste levels were substantial both pre- and post-implementation, the new guidelines have positively affected school meal selection and consumption. Despite the increased vegetable portion size requirement, consumption increased and led to significantly more cups of vegetables consumed. Significantly more students selected a fruit, whereas the overall percentage of fruit consumed remained the same, resulting in more students consuming fruits. Contrary to media reports, these results suggest that the new school meal standards have improved students’ overall diet quality. Legislation to weaken the standards is not warranted.

Furthermore, according to a recent USDA fact sheet, school lunch revenue went up, not down, over the first year of implementation. The USDA has also reported that more than 90 percent of schools have successfully implemented the new requirements. So it’s only a small percentage of schools nationwide that are having real difficulty.

And then there’s common sense. Is it any surprise that some children, having grown accustomed to a steady diet of fast food and junk food in school and elsewhere would initially object to salads and broccoli? Many kids dislike math and homework as well, but we keep giving it to them because we care about their future. And when it comes to what kids are eating, and learning to eat over a lifetime, their future really is at stake—according to UCS research, increased fruit and vegetable consumption can save thousands of lives and billions of dollars in health care costs from cardiovascular disease alone.

UCS is fighting to ensure that progress toward a healthier food system for America’s children isn’t turned back. Join us by contacting your member of Congress TODAY!