HSC on PBS NewsHour: School Food Under Fire

June 03, 2014

HSC featured on national television to debate school food standards

By Mark Bishop, Vice President of Policy

Last week I had the honor of joining Judy Woodruff on PBS NewsHour to discuss the current national debate about school food. This was my first experience in a live debate-style interview on national TV, where I went back and forth with Jon Dickl, director of school nutrition in Knox County School. Of course, since the moment my interview ended, I have been thinking about what “I could have said.”

First, a little bit of a civics lesson: Usually, Congress passes laws and directs a federal agency to develop regulations and oversee implementation. In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act, which directed the USDA to establish science-based nutrition standards for school food. The USDA did just that, but not all requirements were to the liking of every food company. So, Congress to the rescue. As some may recall, in 2011, Congress intervened and successfully required the USDA to recognize tomato paste as a vegetable . Currently, some members of the U.S. House of Representatives are attempting to pass legislation allowing districts to opt out of the higher nutrition standards for school food that are required for participation in the national school meal program.

Now, my debate with Mr. Dickl centered around the seemingly esoteric issue of “flexibility” for schools when implementing the nutrition standards. The reality is that flexibility is important for any regulation — nothing ever goes exactly as planned — markets adapt in unexpected ways, and agencies need to adapt regulations to the realities on the ground. And as I pointed out, the USDA has been tremendously flexible with these rules, most recently allowing time to phase in the full whole grain rules.

However, what I wish I had stated is that in political debates, words like “flexibility” often are code words for something else. In this context “flexibility” is the code word for “rolling back” the nutrition standards. The reality is, this is simply not acceptable. As taxpayers, we’re spending $10 billion a year on school food. With one in three American children overweight or obese, we can not be spending our tax dollars on junk food for our kids.

Those who are trying to rollback nutrition standards argue that the healthier school food is not acceptable to students. Ms. Woodruff asked me to respond to Mr. Dickl’s concerns about the impact of lower sodium on taste. I argued that schools were getting creative, bringing in farm to school programs, working with spices and fresh ingredients. However, what I could have added is that right in front of me (in fact, next week!) is Cooking up Change, where high school culinary students are creating healthy lunches that their peers enjoy that comply with USDA nutrition standards. The results are delicious! But even more importantly, it is simply irresponsible to eliminate science-backed nutrition standards just because 10 percent of schools are telling the School Nutrition Association that kids don’t want to eat their vegetables. If students said they hated math, we wouldn’t eliminate the subject, we’d find creative ways to challenge students to do better. That’s how we need to treat school food.

No one said serving healthier school food would be easy, but the stakes are too high for us to fail.