USDA Shifting Toward Healthier Commodities Program for School Meals

October 08, 2009

By Mark Bishop, HSC Deputy Director

Earlier this month, I participated in a U.S. Senate briefing on
improving the nutritional quality of school commodity foods. Ensuring
healthy commodities is an important component of a healthy and properly
funded school meal program.

First a bit of a background on commodity
foods. . .

The USDA runs the Commodity Foods Program, which essentially
provides schools agricultural products — both whole and processed foods.
The availability of this food can often make the difference between a
program that loses or makes money by providing about 15 to 20
percent of the food items for a lunch menu. At the same time, this program has
also been criticized for distributing unhealthful processed foods and
low-quality proteins.

However, things have changed at the
USDA, and their commodity food offerings are getting better. Currently the
program is offering low-fat cheeses, lean meats and bread products that
are whole grain. And they are committed to bringing more and healthier
options to their listing of available food items.

One day prior to this briefing, Senator Blanche Lincoln, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, introduced S1650,
a bill to improve the purchase and processing of healthful commodities
for use in school meal programs. This bill would essentially put into
law the healthful improvements that the USDA has been making. We
believe that this should and will become an important part of the
discussion around the Child Nutrition Act.

The briefing was
sponsored by Senator Lincoln and organized by the National Alliance for
Nutrition and Activity
(NANA) and the Center for Science in the Public
Interest
. As a NANA partner, we were excited about the well-attended
briefing and the changes this means for school food.

Thank you to NANA and Senator Lincoln for their leadership on this issue.

And if you're interested in improving school food, support HSC's efforts to bring healthier options to the table. Our annual Cooking Up Change healthy cooking contest puts the task of creating a healthy menu in the hands of student chefs, who always cook up healthy, tasty options while exceeding USDA guidelines on a very, very tight budget. Imagine what they — and our school food service providers across the nation — could do with more money for better food.