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Political fight simmers over school lunch menu changes

May 29, 2014 at 6:44 PM EDT
The 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act required schools to use more wholesome ingredients and set fat, sugar and sodium limits. But Republican lawmakers have proposed a one-year waiver, arguing that students won't eat the new offerings or that schools can't afford them. Judy Woodruff gets debate from Mark Bishop of the Healthy Schools Campaign and John Dickl of the School Nutrition Association.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to combating obesity and promoting nutrition among American children.

First lady Michelle Obama has made healthy eating, particularly in schools, her top public priority. But after hearing from some school districts about the complications in implementing the new program, Republicans are now pushing to roll back the regulations.

In recent weeks, the issue of public school lunch standards has turned into a political food fight in Washington. First lady Michelle Obama has made fighting childhood obesity a priority. And, on Tuesday, she criticized House Republicans who are trying to scale back nutrition guidelines she championed.

FIRST LADY MICHELLE OBAMA: So, this is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable to me, not just as first lady, but as a mother.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The new standards took effect under the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. They require schools to use more whole grains and fresh fruit in meals. And they set limits on the amount of fat, sugar and sodium in food items.

MICHELLE OBAMA: So, the last thing that we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health, especially when we’re finally starting to see some progress on this issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Republicans, siding with some school nutrition professionals and food companies, argue too many students won’t eat the new lunch offerings, and say schools are having a hard time paying for the standards. They have proposed a one-year waiver.

Alabama Republican Robert Aderholt made the case at a markup today of the agriculture appropriations bill.

REP. ROBERT ADERHOLT, R, Ala.: These are good hardworking (INAUDIBLE) They are trying to do their best to meet these standards, but they need more time. This — all this says is, this gives them — have a 12-month waiver if they’re having financial difficulty. It does roll not back the standards.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The waiver measure is expected to win approval in the House, but is unlikely to pass in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

And with us now to discuss all this is Mark Bishop of the Healthy Schools Campaign, who is a supporter of the White House’s efforts, and Jon Dickl, who serves on the board of the School Nutrition Association and also is the director of school nutrition for the Knox County Schools in Knoxville, Tennessee. He believes there needs to be more flexibility.

And we welcome you both to the program.

Jon Dickl, let me start with you.

I think we can stipulate both of you believe children should be eating nutritious food. So my question to you is, what is the problem with the standards as they are laid down now?

JON DICKL, Director, School Nutrition, Knox County: Currently, the standards are suffering from inflexibility.

And what it’s doing is, it’s causing a lot of districts nationwide to struggle to meet their financial requirements and also to serve meals that the students are finding palatable. Specifically, we’re having issues with whole grains, with the sodium targets, and also with the potential rulings on smart snacks that’s coming down.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s talk specifics. What’s the problem with whole grains?

JON DICKL: The current requirements that we have right now is that 50 percent of all of our whole grains need to be enriched with 50 percent whole grain or greater.

This has been a good move and we’re applauding that move and we’re happy where we are right now. What we’re finding is students are finding some items acceptable. And other items are a little more challenging. So, for example, in the Southwest part of the country, they are struggling with whole grain flour tortillas. The students don’t find them as acceptable in that part of the country because it is really a part of their culture.

Here in the Southeast, we have the same problem with whole grain biscuits. And students are finding them less acceptable here. The USDA did come out on a waiver on whole grain pasta that will be available to districts that will allow for a two-year exemption if districts qualify and meet the requirements of that waiver.

And we applaud that, because it will allow for additional flexibility for districts, because whole grain pasta has been a real challenge, to be able to find a pasta that will hold up under cooking and that has appropriate color and texture.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me stop you there.

Mark Bishop, what — when — their argument is that you can’t cook some whole gain pasta to be as tasty and appealing to kids as others. What about that argument?

MARK BISHOP, Healthy Schools Campaign: You know, first of all, I have no envy for the job of a school food service director. It is tireless work. You have to make food on pennies. So, it’s challenging. It’s hard work. And I have the greatest respect for the work that they do.

However, flexibility is something that we actually have an agreement on. Flexibility is important. And we think that, so far, the USDA has shown tremendous flexibility in looking at these standards.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the Agriculture Department.

MARK BISHOP: Yes, the Agriculture Department.

They — in addition to the whole grains, they — rulings that they just put forward, they also set — they changed how the proteins are going to be implemented. There are a lot of things that USDA is actually working with schools to make sure implementation works better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I do want to stick with the arguments from the school, the folks who run the school lunch programs, school breakfast programs, like Mr. Dickl, who say that it is hard, it is hard to get foods under the — that meet these standards and that children will eat.

MARK BISHOP: Yes.

Well, there are — you know, there’s more to the school food program that than just the food that’s being served. So — but, as to the food, there are a lot of — there are organizations that we look to that can provide professional development, best practices, and help us identify better products, whether it’s the Food Management Service Institute, whether it’s School Food Focus.

There are a lot of great resources to help schools. There is also the food industry that is reformulating products. And one of the moves that the…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean in a healthier direction.

MARK BISHOP: In a healthier direction, adding whole grains.

The USDA’s move is allowing the industry to adapt and create products that work better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that something that’s going to make it possible to meet these standards?

JON DICKL: I think — I think, right now, we have moved so far so fast, that really what we need to look at is manufacturing — and many of the manufacturing segments need to get caught up.

I mean, we have 55,000 members in our association that we’re trying to work with. But what we’re seeing is, we’re seeing a lot of struggles. Even — even USDA foods that are available to a school district, USDA has come out with some new items that are lower in sodium.

Three years ago, I got up and spoke at a legislative action conference about the USDA foods and the potential sodium targets that are desired for 2022, which would limit grades K-5 to 640 milligrams of sodium. And I took every new item that they had mentioned. And when I totaled them out, the new sodium — lower-sodium items were about 1,000 milligrams of sodium.

So the sodium targets are virtually unachievable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me come back to Mark Bishop on that.

JON DICKL: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The food may not taste as good to these children without some salt in it.

MARK BISHOP: In some ways, we have to engage students with where they are at. We have to do taste-testing. We have to bring them to help them understand what the menu changes are.

We — we know in Chicago one of their sodium reduction strategies is to implement a farm-to-school program, where they are bringing in more local and fresher food that in many ways it actually tastes better, even know it doesn’t have that sodium component that you would find in a canned vegetable product.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that something you can do all over the country, Mr. Dickl?

JON DICKL: That’s something that’s being done all over the country currently. We have had a farm-to-school program here in Knoxville for over three years.

And a lot of my counterparts nationwide are doing farm-to-school. We have some folks that are doing some really excellent, creative ideas. A lot of folks are looking to solid alternatives. We do — a lot of our recipes are done with a sea salt potassium chloride substitute just to be able to try to find some food and items. We do a lot of fresh herbs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Your point is, you need more flexibility, that you would eventually go along with these standards; you want more time.

JON DICKL: Absolutely.

And we’re already honoring the standards as they’re written, but next school year, you’re talking all grains have to be 100 percent whole grain. All grains we offer have to be 50 percent or greater whole grains next year. So, there is no flexibility next year. So I won’t be able to offer any non-whole grain bread items next year. The sodium targets in 2017 are much more restrictive and in 2022 are much more restrictive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I hear you.

Mr. Bishop, why can’t there be a little more flexibility?

MARK BISHOP: Well, I think there is a lot of flexibility.

And the USDA has shown a considerable effort to work with schools. The whole grains and the protein are perfect points of how this flexibility is happening. And, again, the — the — to address these challenges is not about gutting the standards. It’s about figuring out what flexibility works and then engaging students and figuring out how to get it done better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly…

JON DICKL: Is there time for me to address that real quick?

You know, we keep hearing this about gutting the program. This is not an attempt to gut the program. Our organization has been serving kids healthy meals for about 70 years. This is about meeting the regulations where they currently are, which is well beyond where they were several years ago. This is just another attempt for us to be able to meet the needs of our members and to serve the students nationwide a healthy meal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we do hear you both.

Jonathan Dickl in Knoxville, Mark Bishop, we thank you both.

JON DICKL: Thank you.

MARK BISHOP: Thank you.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.