What's On the Menu for the School Lunch Program?

Several hundred school food managers visited Senate offices this week pushing for floor action on a bipartisan draft child nutrition reauthorization bill that reflects a deal on school meal standards brokered with the White House and a key Senate panel.

The School Nutrition Association, which represents school cafeteria and food service managers as well as their food suppliers and helped broker that deal, say it would give members certainty and mend a rift between the Obama administration and congressional Democrats.

Congress is running behind on reauthorization of legislation (PL 111-296) that expired Sept. 30, 2015. The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee approved the draft bill by Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., in January on a voice vote. Roberts and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., say they have talked to their respective leaders about putting the bill on the floor.

The House Education and the Workforce Committee, which has jurisdiction over child nutrition programs, has not yet produced a bill.

SNA President Jean Ronnei said her organization is pleased with the compromise bill, but the organization has additional priorities it would like to see included in a final bill.

The organization is seeking a 35-cent per meal increase in federal reimbursements for federally subsidized lunches and breakfasts; Agriculture Department-purchased fruits, vegetables and commodities for the breakfast program at a value of 10 cents per breakfast; and a $1 million independent study done on ways to streamline reporting requirements by schools on child nutrition programs.

SNA also wants language to force the Agriculture Department to finish a report and issue regulations on ways schools should address unpaid debt by students unable to pay for meals, but whose families make too much to qualify for free or reduced-priced meals.

Cathy Schuchart, the association’s lobbyist, said the debt issue is a concern for many cafeteria managers because their budgets have to cover those unpaid meals.

SNA members have their eyes on the political calendar in arguing for Senate action.

At the group’s national legislative conference, a member asked Amy Walters, national editor for the Cook Political Report and a speaker at the event, how likely Congress is to finish the child nutrition reauthorization bill in a highly charged election year.

“Congress is still getting things done. A lot of them are issues like yours that aren’t going to make the front pages, but will get done,” Walters said.

SNA members also are watching their school calendars. Many of them are already putting together their 2016-17 menus as well as supply needs they need to send out for bid to food distributors and food companies.

For example, SNA President-elect Becky Domokos-Bays says she will need school board approval for next year’s menus and purchases by late June before the board recesses until September.

But Domokos-Bays and her members say without reauthorization, they face uncertainty about the standard they must meet on whole grain foods and whether they will be required to serve foods that meet a second reduction in salt scheduled to take effect in 2017.

The association got reprieves on whole grains and the scheduled 2017 salt reduction in policy riders in fiscal 2015 (PL 113-235) and 2016 (PL 114-113) omnibus spending bills. The omnibus bills directed the Agriculture Department to allow states to waive the 100 percent whole grain foods requirement if schools served products that were at least 50 percent whole grain products.

The policy waivers also directed the Agriculture Department to delay a second phase of salt reduction in school meals until it had studies showing health benefits specifically for children.

The Senate bill directs the Agriculture Department to issue rules changing the whole grain standard but does not specify what the new standard will be. Under the agreement SNA reached with the committee and the White House, schools would serve products that are at least 80 percent whole grain.

The SNA leaders say they went the appropriations route because some members could not find or could not afford the 100 percent whole grain foods. Those members needed options before the school nutrition law expired Sept. 30, 2015, and Congress considered changes as part of the law’s reauthorization process, association leaders added.

But Doug Davis, chairman of the association’s public policy committee, acknowledged in a presentation to members on Sunday that the organization paid a price. Davis told association members the policy riders “impacted some of the relationships that we as an association has built over the years” with the White House, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and members of Congress.

Obama administration officials and supporters of the nutrition standards saw the association’s outreach to Republican lawmakers, some of whom belittled the law as an expansion of the nanny state, as undermining the nutrition law.

Davis said SNA President Jean Ronnei decided to see if the relationships could be repaired. The opportunity came when first lady Michelle Obama appointed Debra Eschmeyer as her new executive director of the Let’s Move initiative to combat childhood obesity and senior nutrition policy adviser in January 2015.

The first lady has made the school meal standards a major component of her drive to reduce child obesity through physical activity and better nutrition. Behind the scenes, Obama rallied opposition from a network of public health advocacy groups, anti-hunger organizations and other entities.

Davis, the food service director for Burlington, Vt., knows Eschmeyer, which he said helped him get a meeting with her. Schuchart talked with Roberts and Stabenow about compromises. Davis said Eschmeyer helped get the White House and the Agriculture Department to a meeting with SNA.

Discussions led to a compromise and the Senate Agriculture draft bill.

In addition to changes on whole grain standards, the agreement would delay the second phase of salt reductions in school meals until 2019. The date is not in the bill. The Agriculture Department is directed to order an independent review of sodium levels and whether the latest scientific research supports another reduction.

The agreement and the bill call for the creation of an Agriculture Department-Centers for Disease Control and Prevention working group to review and issue guidance on school policies on fruits and vegetables in school meals, such as the use of share tables for salad bar items where children can leave an item they dislike that other children might eat.

The department also would create an advisory panel to review expanding the types of foods allowed for sale on school a la carte lines nutrient.

Schuchart said child nutrition reauthorization with the nutrition standards is a top priority for the nutrition association.

SNA appears to be on the same page as Vilsack, who told the audience at an anti-hunger conference by Feeding America and the Food Research and Action Center this week that a five-year reauthorization would create “a circumstance in which these changes are institutionalized within the DNA of the programs, within the DNA of the schools and within the DNA of the people who really care about our kids, the school lunch folks.”