Yesterday, Congress introduced the final conference report on the fiscal year 2012 Agriculture, Commerce/Justice/Science (CJS), and Transportation/Housing and Urban Development (THUD) Appropriations bills (HR 112-284). Anyone interested in education policy should note that this is the annual funding bill that covers Child Nutrition Act programs like school lunch and school breakfast. And this year’s bill is particularly important. Lawmakers have inserted provisions that would all but tie the Department of Agriculture’s hands as it attempts to set nutritional guidelines for school meals.
Provisions in the proposed funding bill would place significant restrictions on nutrition requirements for school lunches made possible in the 2010 Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act (which reauthorized the Child Nutrition Act of 1966). Congress is proposing these changes before the Department of Agriculture has released the final rules governing the implementation of the Health and Hunger Free Kids Act, which were first released for comment in January.
The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 is largely considered to have made some of the greatest strides in improving the nutritional quality of school meals—and the law once enjoyed bi-partisan support, passing the Senate unanimously in 2010.
Unfortunately, due to a combination of special interest lobbying and concerns over “federal intrusion,” drastically improved nutritional requirements for school meals may no longer be possible. In fact, the bill defines some very specific limitations on nutritional restrictions, including:
1. Ensuring that tomato paste in pizza sauce can be counted as a serving of vegetables in a meal;
2. Eliminating any limit on the number of starchy vegetables (potatoes, lima beans, peas, etc…) in a meal;
3. Prohibiting schools from using any federal funds to limit the sodium content in school lunches beyond an initial two-year target defined in the law; and
4. Eliminating any requirements on the amount of whole grains in a school meal.
According to a summary released by the House Appropriations Committee, the changes included in the pending appropriations bill would “prevent overly burdensome and costly regulations…Without these provisions, the cost of these important programs would balloon by an additional $7 billion over the next five years – leaving states and local school districts in the lurch.”
The $7 billion number appears to come from draft nutrition rules the Department of Agriculture published in January 2011. The Department estimates that the total cost of all nutritional requirements under the proposed regulations would increase by $6.8 billion from 2012 to 2016. This includes the cost of all proposed increases in the amount of fruits and vegetables served at meals, limits to the amount of fats, calories, and sodium in meals, and the cost of switching from refined grains to whole grains in meals. Interestingly, the appropriations bill does not touch on calorie or fat limits, suggesting that some of that $6.8 billion increase in costs will remain despite the limitations described above.
It is important to note that under the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act, the federal government specifically provides local schools with additional six cent reimbursement per meal to meet the increased nutritional restrictions in the law. The Department of Agriculture, on the other hand, estimates that the nutritional improvements will cost an additional 3.4 centers per lunch for the first two years, well under the 6 cents provided, and an additional 7.2 cents per lunch after that.
Though the cost of the nutritional requirements will eventually outpace the increased reimbursement rate, it appears that the Health and Hunger Free Act already accounted for most of these increased costs. This leads us to wonder whether schools will continue to receive the additional 6 cent reimbursement if the appropriations bill passes and many of the originally conceived nutritional requirements are no longer possible.
Though saving $7 billion may be compelling during this time of fiscal austerity, Congress should also remember the social cost of eliminating these nutritional requirements. It is no secret that juvenile obesity is a serious problem in America.
In fact, according to Mission: Readiness, a non-profit comprised of retired military leaders working to battle obesity in schools, 27 percent of young adults are too obese to serve in the military making school nutrition an issue of national security. And for low-income students that receive a large amount of their daily nutrition in school, ignoring the importance of improving nutritional requirements for school meals could mean even more trouble down the line.
Congress is slated to vote on the pending appropriations “mini-bus” (a small omnibus funding bill) sometime this week. If the bill passes as is, and the president signs it, most of the nutritional “teeth” of the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act will be eliminated, allowing the low nutritional standards in the school lunch program to continue.
Check out this before-and-after-school lunch menu to understand the full effects improved nutritional rules would have on the quality of lunch offerings.