Proposed waiver from school nutrition guidelines sparks debate

The controversial school lunch waiver debate that began in Washington has migrated to Kentucky. While supporters claim that the proposal assists rural schools, some opponents say it defeats the purpose of years of work to fight one of the U.S.’s highest childhood obesity rates, John Moritz writes for McClatchy Newspapers, parent of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Next week the House of Representatives is expected to vote on a measure that would let schools ask for a one-year waiver to get out of the new federal school lunch nutritional standards—if the school can show that meeting those guidelines would require them to keep operating meal programs at a loss. The measure is part of a spending bill for the Department of Agriculture passed by the House Appropriations Committee, headed by 5th District Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset.

Michael Saucedo, 9, eats lunch at Russell Cave Elementary
School in Lexington. (Herald-Leader photo by Pablo Alcala)

USDA guidelines, enacted in 2012, call for schools to serve a fruit and a vegetable with each meal. “The guidelines also mandated a switch to 100 percent whole grains by this summer, required milk servings be 1 percent or fat-free and imposed calorie and sodium limitations based on age group,” Moritz writes. “Standards also were set for a limited amount of saturated fats per serving, while banning the use of trans fats.”

Although the Fayette County Public Schools lunch program will not likely apply for a waiver because the system’s meal program is operating in the black, Director of Child Nutrition Michelle Coker told Moritz the waivers would helps smaller Kentucky school districts.

Scott County Nutritional Services Director Mitzi Marshall told Moritz the district is losing money because fewer students are buying the healthier lunches, and even some students who could get free or on-sale lunches have been bringing food from home. She said the guidelines have “gone a little overboard.” Coker said cafeteria workers told her that students do not eat the healthy food, forcing the district to increase trash collection. “She estimated that as much as 75 percent of the fruits and vegetables were thrown away,” Moritz writes.

“You can put the best meal out there, the most healthy meal, but if they are not eating it, they are not healthier,” Coker told Moritz. Before the new guidelines, schools provided fruits and vegetables as an option for children instead of as a requirement.

Supporters of the guidelines argue that tastes can change and schools need to come up with creative strategies for that. “Our schools need to be an environment that makes the healthier and easier choice for our children,” said Susan Zepeda, president of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

According to a report by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Kentucky ranks eighth in the nation for obesity among children ages 10 to 17 and third among high-school students.

Anita Courtney, who helped the Better Bites program that aims to offer healthier food items for children at swimming pools, public parks and after-school programs, said, “Great work has been done to shift the food that our tax dollars pay for our kids. It just boggles my mind that [Congress] would consider pulling the plug on that.”

Coker said a waiver wouldn’t mean a school district reverts to its old ways of offering greasy, fatty and sugary foods, but would give an extra year to meet all the requirements. (Read more)

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