What Happened at the Hearing on USDA School Nutrition Rollbacks?

Brandon Lipps

Last week, the House held an oversight hearing on the topic of the USDA’s school nutrition rollbacks. Brandon Lipps, administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), testified on recent and proposed changes to several federal nutrition programs.

USDA’s Action to Rollback School Nutrition Standards

One issue addressed was the agency’s move to weaken science-based nutrition standards in school breakfasts and lunches. Beginning this upcoming school year, schools will be allowed to serve meals with more salt, fewer whole grains, and flavored nonfat or low-fat milk with unlimited sugar. This shift has been controversial — the USDA received over 86,000 public comments when they proposed the changes, with 96% opposed, and it has been challenged in court.

During the hearing, several lawmakers voiced concern over the rollback. Rep. Susie Lee pointed out that these changes do not align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Rep. Kim Schrier, a pediatrician, noted potential consequences for children’s long-term health: “We are establishing what their palates are. If we give them a ‘salt tooth’ or a sweet tooth then that lasts forever, affecting ultimate outcomes.”

There is no evidence that shows the stronger standards caused more meals to be thrown away.

When pressed about the USDA’s rationale, Lipps repeatedly cited a high level of food waste, a decline in participation, and the increased burden on schools to meet the stronger standards.

“Nutrition professionals tell us these flexibilities will help them provide food that will not be wasted,” said Lipps. However, the School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study, published by the USDA in April, highlights several findings that shed light on schools’ progress since the strong standards were implemented in 2012:

  • Nutritional quality of school meals has increased by 41% since the strong standards went into effect
  • Schools serving the healthiest meals had 10% higher participation than those serving least healthy meals
  • There is no evidence that shows the stronger standards caused more meals to be thrown away; instead, the level of plate waste was “generally comparable” to the level prior to 2012 and in some cases “reduced or unchanged”
  • There was no significant association between reported cost per meal and the nutritional quality — that is, healthier meals did not mean a higher cost burden to schools

Related read from the Washington Post: “Why is the USDA downplaying good news about this Obama-era school nutrition program?”

Community Eligibility Provision

Another issue discussed was the president’s proposal to reduce the number of schools eligible for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). CEP is a popular tool for schools in high-poverty areas that allows them to serve free meals to all students. Growing numbers of schools nationwide are participating in CEP, with nearly 13.6 million children offered access to free meals.

When asked about the rationale behind the proposal, Lipps said “the president’s budget put forward a proposal that offers an opportunity for the savings from that plan to be invested in other areas.” Rep. Bobby Scott asked, “Are those savings generated by fewer children having access to free school meals?”

Lipps replied, “It is generated by children who do not qualify for free and reduced-price meals not getting free meals at school.”  

“I can tell you what school personnel don’t like, having been a teacher for 15 years: hungry children.”

CEP has proven successful in increasing school meal participation because it takes away the stigma for children having to prove they qualify for free or reduced-price meals. It helps schools, too, because schools no longer need to collect and process meal applications. It also eliminates “lunch shaming” of children without money for a meal or with unpaid school meal debt.

A comment by Rep. Jahana Hayes sums up what’s at stake: “I can tell you what school personnel don’t like, having been a teacher for 15 years: hungry children. Hungry children don’t learn. This isn’t this idea of the regulation, the paperwork, or what kids choose or like to eat. They like to eat. They like to be fed.”

Congress or USDA will need to take further steps to finalize the president’s proposed changes to CEP and other programs. Stay tuned for future opportunities to advocate against these harmful changes.

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