WASHINGTON — Debate in Washington over a controversial school lunch waiver has spread into the Bluegrass State. Proponents say the innocuous proposal helps rural schools, while critics argue that it threatens years of work combating one of the nation's largest childhood obesity rates.
The House of Representatives is expected to vote next week on a provision that allows schools to apply for a one-year waiver to opt out of new federal school lunch nutritional standards if the schools can prove that adhering to those guidelines would force them to operate at a loss. The rider is part of an overall agriculture spending bill developed this spring by the House Appropriations Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Somerset.
Should the bill become law, the Fayette County Public Schools lunch program is not expected to apply for a waiver, as the system already operates in the black, said Director of Child Nutrition Michelle Coker.
But Coker, who supports the implementation of waivers, said the option to opt out of newer and stricter standards by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a year could help smaller school districts in Kentucky with less buying power ease into the standards.
In Scott County, where the school district serves 9,000 kids, Nutritional Services Director Mitzi Marshall said that students are "balking big-time against the whole grains" and that the school district has lost money from fewer students purchasing the healthier lunches. Even some of the 48 percent of students who receive free or reduced-priced lunches have opted to bring lunch from home, she said.
The USDA guidelines, imposed in 2012 in response to the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, require schools to serve a fruit and a vegetable with every 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. Standards also were set for a limited amount of saturated fats per serving, while banning the use of trans fats.
According to the Federal Register, compliance with the law is expected to add $3.2 billion in school lunch costs over the five-year period that began in 2012.
Marshall, who said the new guidelines have "gone a little overboard," said she supports the waiver because of its potential to help smaller districts. However, Marshall said, she did not foresee applying for a waiver if offered because Scott County has already fully implemented the new guidelines, though at what exact cost she could not say.
Coker said the Fayette County district — which serves 40,000 students, 51 percent of whom are free- or reduced-lunch eligible — saw produce prices increase at an average of $100,000 annually for the past five or six years. After USDA guidelines forced the district to offer fruits and vegetables with every meal, the district saw produce costs jump $400,000 in 2013.
But children don't eat the healthy foods, Coker said school cafeteria workers told her, and the district also has had to increase weekly trash collections. She estimated that as much as 75 percent of the fruits and vegetables were thrown away.
"You can put the best meal out there, the most healthy meal, but if they are not eating it, they are not healthier," Coker said, adding that prior to the new USDA guidelines the schools offered fruits and vegetables as a choice option for all students rather than a requirement.
Defenders of the new guidelines say it should be the schools' duty to find creative ways to introduce healthy foods to students that they will enjoy and eat. A 2012 survey of Kentucky parents sponsored by the non-profit Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky found that 88 percent of respondents described school lunches meeting minimum nutritional guidelines as "very important." That same poll found that 23 percent of Kentucky parents described their children's food as "very nutritious."
"The respondents resoundingly said they wanted the schools to step up to the plate," said Susan Zepeda, the president of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. "Our schools need to be an environment that makes the healthier and easier choice for our children."
Kentucky, which ranks eighth in the nation in obesity among 10- to 17-year-olds and third among high school students according to a report by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has made efforts to reduce childhood obesity through public schools. In 2005, the state Senate passed a law requiring schools to give children a minimum of 30 minutes of daily exercise and set requirements for foods served outside the school lunch program in vending machines and a la carte lines.
While obesity rates among children in Kentucky have fallen slightly among children in the 2 to 4 and 10 to 17 age brackets, rates have seen small increases for children in high school, the report said.
In Lexington, Anita Courtney — who helped found the Better Bites program that aims to offer healthier food items for children at swimming pools, public parks and after-school programs — called the House provision "shortsighted."
"Great work has been done to shift the food that our tax dollars pay for our kids," Courtney said. "It just boggles my mind that (Congress) would consider pulling the plug on that."
At the center of the debate is the School Nutrition Association, an industry group representing school lunch providers, which supported the guidelines when they were put in place in 2012 but now is calling on Congress to approve the waivers. A list of donors for the trade group includes industry giants such as the National Dairy Council, Schwan's Foods, Cargill, Campbell Soup, General Mills and Tyson Foods.
"The people who are profiting from selling highly processed school lunches are being heard louder than parents trying to protect their kids," said Casey Hinds, a food blogger, activist and mother of two who raised her children in the Fayette school district. (Hinds now lives with her family in Colorado).
Coker, a member of the national and Kentucky branch of the School Nutrition Association, said she attended a national conference in Washington in March where she and others from Kentucky lobbied Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Rep. Andy Barr, a Lexington Republican, to allow schools the option of applying for a waiver.
Getting a waiver "makes it sound like you're doing everything the old way — when it was grease and fat and lard and sugar — but you're not. You're continuing on your way," Coker said, noting that some schools might need a year to switch over for some requirements, such as serving whole-grain pasta.
Hinds, the mother from Lexington, said she has sent letters to Kentucky lawmakers, including McConnell, Rogers and Barr, pleading with them to hold firm on USDA guidelines.
In an emailed statement, Barr said, "While I look forward to reviewing the specifics of the Agricultural Appropriations bill ... I have always supported providing flexibility over one-size-fits-all mandates written by Washington bureaucrats."
Once the spending bill gets through the House, the Senate would take it up. Asked about the waiver provision this week, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he would not make a decision about the waiver until the legislation goes to the Senate.
McConnell's office said he has not commented on the issue.