As One School District Goes Organic, the Fate of our Nation’s School Lunches is Uncertain


It’s back-to-school season, which means that we’re back to considering what’s in school lunches. This is a pivotal year: when Congress heads back into session next week they will be getting ready to vote on the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR), a set of rules that will have a huge effect on the food that our kids are served in school.

We’ve written often about school lunches and the CNR in the past, but here’s a brief recap and update. The National School Lunch Program feeds around 31 million students—over two-thirds of them living below the poverty line. For many of these students, meals at school provide one of the few opportunities they have for a balanced and nutritious meal. The CNR is renewed every five years. In 2010, with the CNR renewal, the Obama Administration launched the Health and Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA) which was a big overhaul of the National School Lunch Program (NLSP). It required healthier options in school meals hinging on changes to nutrition standards such as lower sodium and increased portions of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. This year, CNR renewal will be considered on September 30th and along with it, the HFFKA. In theory, Congress could end the HHFKA and the progress it has made in school nutrition.

While most public health organizations give wholehearted support to the HHFKA, it is not without its opponents. One such opponent is the School Nutrition Association, a group that healthy-food crusader Dr. Marion Nestle has called “the leading defender of junk food.” In the past few years, leading up to this fall’s CNR vote, SNA has lobbied heavily to get rid of some of the hallmark HHFKA guidelines. They argue that these regulations cost money, are “government overreach,” and kids don’t like the meals. SNA receives a lot of criticism for being the mouthpiece of Big Food companies like Pepsico, Tyson, Cargill that help fund it. Any “big food” conglomerate obviously wants the tax dollars that flow to school lunches.

In her recent article in Civil Eats, Bettina Elias Siegel, school-lunch activist and owner of the school-lunch blog the Lunch Tray, gives a very thorough summary of the history of school lunches. Siegel points out that it is not only Big Food that has a vested interest in CNR, but also the National School Board Association and many members of the Republican majority, who spout anti-big-government rhetoric and generally oppose all Obama Administration initiatives. Debate on the CNR will most likely not be resolved on September 30th, but Siegel assures us that all of the nutrition programs connected to it are permanently authorized. However, she is also certain that this Fall will be a rocky road for school lunches, and she is concerned about SNA’s involvement:

So while the 2015 CNR is guaranteed to be a complex mix of partisan politics, conflicting economic considerations, and some degree of compromise, from a purely science-based perspective, one thing is clear: A win for the SNA would be a loss for our nation’s most vulnerable kids.”

While the stakes are high, and this can seem like dramatic debate, it's important to note that important and positive aspects of the CNR have bipartisan support. For instance, one exciting trend in school lunches that will likely continue is the Farm to School Program. In fact, Siegel and others feel positive about the passage of the latest Farm to School Act Bill, which would provide a three-fold funding increase to the program. A recent poll from the Kellogg Foundation found, among other things, that 88 percent of Americans support increased government funding to farm to school programs. Christine Rushton of USA Today offers a brief report and notes that these programs are not only about getting healthy food to children, but also about supporting local farmers. Given the multiple benefits, it’s pretty hard to believe that Farm to School will be a divisive issue this fall.

The Farm to School program is just one way that our school lunch programs can potentially help our ailing food system. Can you imagine the benefit to farmers and the health of our kids if schools were to serve organic food? The Sausalito Marin City School District is putting this idea into action as the first school district to serve 100 percent organic meals to their students. Nadia Prupis of Common Dreams reports and quotes Judi Shils, the executive director of the company that will be catering to the schools.

Students everywhere are vulnerable to pesticide residues and unsafe environmental toxins. Not only does this program far exceed USDA nutritional standards, but it ties the health of our children to the health of our planet. It’s the first program to say that fundamentally, you cannot have one without the other.”

While Marin and Sausalito County are an extreme example in terms of access and resources attendant to relatively wealthy communities, they are a shining example of what a school system can do with food-service innovation. Beyond the food they eat, students in these schools also have the opportunity to learn about healthy lifestyles.

As we head into the fall and the vote on the CNR, let’s hope that Congress keeps this in mind.

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Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson

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