An update: I am a member of a group called the "Evanston Healthy Community Task Force," formed primarily of parents in my school district, but we are lucky enough to also have members who have been working on legislative issues regarding food and farming in Illinois. Rallying around Monica Eng's article, we decided that we would create a citizen coalition of individuals in our congressional district who are concerned about this issue, ask for a meeting with our Congressional Representative, Jan Schakowsky, and present our concerns regarding the Child Nutrition Act and NSLP (if I've seemed distracted here lately, it's because this has taken up most of my time.)
Here is the text of our presentation (thanks to JimInLoganSquare for his feedback on the first draft)
Child Nutrition Act
Proposal for 2009 Re-authorization
Illinois 9th Congressional District Citizen Coalition
We are a group of Illinois ninth congressional district citizens concerned about public health, obesity, and food-related diseases, especially among children, as well as the impact of diet on children’s capacity to learn. We thank you for your current work removing "competitive foods,” of poor nutritional value from school campuses.
The Child Nutrition Act and the National School Lunch Program impose enormous constraints on school districts, sometimes negatively impacting their ability to serve children healthy food. Current federal law focuses on regulating caloric content and specific nutrients, but offers little incentive for the food and farm industry to provide high-quality foods. As a result, schools have little choice but to offer highly-processed foods which have been artificially manipulated to meet the standards: e.g.: pancakes, nachos, corn dogs, and french fries. We are concerned that school lunch is influencing the eating choices that children make outside of school and, ultimately, having a negative impact on diet-related disease.
We recommend the Child Nutrition Act be expanded to include the following:
~ Promote incentives for naturally nutritionally dense foods and minimize use of nutritionally poor, highly-processed foods.(1)
-Expand current regulations to include a daily maximum allowable amounts of sugar, sodium, saturated fats, and to eliminate trans-fats, high fructose corn syrup, rGBH, and artificial colors and preservatives.
-Require two servings of fruits and/or vegetables per meal, one fresh, neither containing added sugar.
~ Meet current grocery-store labeling guidelines.(2)
~ Fund existing farm-to-school provision of the 2004 Child Nutrition Act (Section 122) (3)
1) We ask that the majority of foods served in school lunches be naturally nutritionally dense: meaning that the nutritional guidelines of the Child Nutrition Act are met by the innate nutritional value of the original product. Foods served to our children should neither derive nutrition from additives, nor have their nutritive value reduced by overprocessing or excessive use of additives to enhance the food's appeal. Currently, while many foods in school lunch meet guidelines because vitamins or fiber are added during processing – additional additives of fat, sugar, and salt are needed to make these foods palatable.
The 2003 World Health Organization report on Diet, Nutrition and the prevention of Chronic Disease states:
“Eating nutrient dense foods…to maintain a healthy weight is essential at all stages of life. Unbalanced consumption of foods high in energy (sugar, starch and/or fat) and low in essential nutrients contributes to energy excess, overweight and obesity. The amount of the energy consumed in relation to physical activity and the quality of food are key determinants of nutrition related chronic disease.”
“Energy-dense and micronutrient-poor foods tend to be processed foods that are high in fat and/or sugars. Low energy-dense (or energy-dilute) foods, such as fruit, legumes, vegetables and whole grain cereals, are high in dietary fibre and water.”
More money alone is not the answer: guidelines should encourage the food and farm industry to meet the growing demand for healthier school meals. Without oversight, more money will simply mean higher profits for food purveyors who will continue serving more of the same. We propose a two-tiered system for school reimbursement. Nutritionally poor, highly-processed meals would be funded at the current rate, but a financial incentive should be offered for meals using higher quality foods that are naturally nutritionally dense and minimally processed.
2) Currently, although most meal plans are set for an entire school year, school lunches are without nutritional labels or accurate ingredient lists, in part because commodity foods are not labeled in the same way as other foods. Parents of children with food allergies or dietary restrictions must spend time meeting with the school nutritionists because they cannot access this information on their own. Better labeling will enable all parents to make informed decisions about their child’s diet at school. We recommend that accurate labeling of nutritional information for each meal be offered along with the school menu, and that this information be made easily accessible to school districts.
3) Many schools are struggling to bring nutritional education to their students. $50 million in mandatory funding for section 122 of the Child Nutrition Act would fund 100-500 projects per year up to $100,000 each to cover start-up costs for Farm to School programs. This provision was included in the 2004 reauthorization of the Act with $10 million in discretionary funding, but has failed to receive an appropriation.
I'm also pleased to post the press release that resulted from the meeting:
Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky pledged to support the reform agenda of a coalition of Illinois 9th congressional district citizens in this fall’s reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. Current federal law regulates caloric content and specific nutrients, but offers little incentive for the food and farm industry to ensure that school districts provide high-quality foods.
“The initial idea of federal feeding programs was to help farmers and not necessarily provide the most nutritious meals,” Schakowsky told an Aug. 31 meeting with seven constituents. “The intent was never about ensuring that parents can easily learn the nutritional content of meals, let alone that they have the knowledge to be effective advocates for better school meal programs.”
The coalition--organized by the Evanston/Skokie District 65/202 PTA Council and the Evanston Food Policy Council—asked Cong. Schakowsky
- Promote incentives for naturally nutritionally dense* foods and minimize use of highly-processed foods.
* Meaning that the nutritional guidelines of the Child
Nutrition Act are met by the innate nutritional value of the original product. Foods served to our children should neither derive nutrition from additives, nor have their nutritive value reduced by overprocessing or excessive use of additives to enhance the food's appeal.
- Meet current grocery-store labeling guidelines so that parents can become more aware of the content of school meals.
* Currently, school lunches are without nutritional labels or accurate ingredient lists, in part because commodity foods are not labeled in the same way as other foods. We recommend that accurate labeling of nutritional information for each meal be offered along with the school menu, and that this information, in turn, be made easily accessible to school districts.
- Fund a farm-to-school competitive grant program that will encourage innovation at the local level to both source fresh food and educate children about nutrition.
The coalition wants Congress to ensure that school districts offer healthful meals on a daily basis. Currently, under the Child Nutrition Act, schools are allowed to average the minimum requirements over a week’s worth of meals. Some districts use this as a loophole to create appealing but less healthy meals as an incentive for students who may not eat lunch daily but who typically pay full- price. These meals cover more costs for school foodservice programs than federally-subsidized free or reduced-price lunches.
Cong. Schakowsky said she supports legislation that would require USDA to apply the same standards to all “competitive foods” sold on school campuses during the day (Competitive foods refers to foods sold on a school campus that compete with those meeting Child Nutrition Act standards---e.g. vending machine fare and a la carte foods like doughnuts or milkshakes). She was not pleased to learn from the coalition that schools can meet the current standards and still serve meals of nachos or pancakes. (I think we should not make specific claims about the nutrition levels unless we’re prepared to offer statistics. The kinds of foods should speak for themselves for right now, anyway.)
Cong. Schakowsky accepted an invitation to tour the Evanston Township High School lunch room to see what children eat and meet the school nutrition director. Michele Hays of the PTA Council Healthy Communities Task Force explains: “Federal rules and regulations impose enormous constraints on school districts, hindering their ability to serve children healthy food.” The Schakowsky meeting was an outcome of the District 65/202 PTA Council’s year-long consensus building process which resulted in both boards adopting a “Healthy Communities” resolution (to be attached). The resolution supports improvements to the federal school meal program as well as the Illinois Food Farms and Jobs Act. Sponsored by state representative Julie Hamos (D-Evanston), this new law stimulates efforts to increase the supply of Illinois-produced food for in-state consumption, including encouragement for school districts statewide to secure 10% of their food from in-state sources by 2020.
More information, including the talking points from the Coalition meeting are available by joining http://groups.google.com/group/evanston-health
, or contact Michele Hays at michelhays AT juno DOT com. We invite citizens, parents, school officials and program directors to participate in this process – the ultimate goal is to improve school lunch for everyone, students, parents, and schools alike.