School Nutrition Amendment to Farm Bill Represents a Step in the Right Direction

December 13, 2007

by Rochelle Davis, HSC Founding Executive Director

The U.S. Senate is preparing to vote on the farm bill.  While the debate about farm subsidies dominates the headlines, it is important to realize that the provisions of the farm bill address many aspects of U.S. food policy, including school food.  (Federal school food programs are part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) 

One of the amendments that senators will soon vote on would establish national standards for food available in schools.  There has been much public attention to the problem of childhood obesity, and the prevalence of junk food in schools has been well documented.   

The common-sense notion that it is important to offer students nutrition education reinforced by the availability of healthy food and the opportunity for physical activity is well supported by research. 

The School Nutrition Amendment to the farm bill, offered by Sens. Harkin and Murkowski, provides a national standard for food available in schools.  This standard, which is far better than the federal government’s outdated definition of foods with minimum nutritional value,  offers food manufacturers one standard to create products that are healthier for our children, rather than having to negotiate many state standards that have minor differences.

While this amendment has attracted the support of a diverse coalition of public health advocates and industry leaders, it has also generated controversy from critics who worry that it oversteps the appropriate role for the federal government and, on the other hand, those who worry that the standards it sets are not strict enough.

Healthy Schools Campaign supports the amendment because it represents a strong and much-needed step in the right direction.

Like all legislation, it required compromise and is not a perfect solution: but it is an important step forward and sends a clear message that school wellness and children’s health are significant issues worth addressing on a large scale. In fact, federal requirements already exist for school food but were written before vending machines and junk food had such a huge presence is schools. This amendment would bring a critical update to these important but obsolete standards.

The national standards would supersede standards set by states, but allow school districts to set their own standards that are stronger than the national ones. Close analysis of state standards and the proposed national standards shows strengths and weaknesses of each, but that the national standards would be at least as valuable overall as state standards. And, national standards offer the additional benefit of providing a set structure within which companies can develop affordable healthy products for schools.