School nutrition is front and center these days.  At the USDA Outlook Conference, Secretary Vilsack proudly pointed out the many improvements USDA has made to school nutrition programs as well as other nutrition programs. 

The National School Lunch Act, (the Act) signed into law by President Truman in 1946 is widely seen as one of the most successful federal programs.  The idea then – and now – is that all schools should have the ability to offer lunch and breakfast to students so that they can concentrate on school work, and not be distracted by hunger.

Today, lunch is served to over 31 million children in 100,000 schools. The US program is a model being replicated all over the world from Japan to Ghana.  The program is also big business.  By one estimate, over ten percent of all food away from home is now served in school. 

Next week, some 1,000 school nutrition administrators from the state and local level….the dedicated public employees who plan and serve the meals… will be in DC to attend the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) 2013 Legislative Action Conference.  They will visit ALL 435 Congressional offices and ALL 100 Senators to describe the challenges ahead of them. 

It is an amazing organization with over 50,000 members in every school district. They work cooperatively with USDA and with the agriculture and food industries as well.  Indeed, the SNA conference will include approximately 200 private sector partners. 

Politically, SNA works the old fashioned way, from the grass roots up. SNA has a PAC but the average contribution is less than one dollar per member.

Each year, SNA presents an Issue Paper to Congress that is developed by the SNA Legislative Committee and approved by the Board. Some years the Issue Paper presents bold ideas for consideration as a part of the reauthorization process.  This year, the Issue Paper focuses on the nuts and bolts of operating the programs at the local level while reminding Congress why its “entitlement status” is important to the efficient administration of the program. 

The nutritional standards for school lunch were significantly changed for the current school year, and more changes are coming for the breakfast program.  Some believe that this new rule was a result of the enactment of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. That is not the case.  In fact, these changes had been in process for many years, and are the first significant nutrition update in more than a decade. 

The Act requires that school meals reflect the latest ‘‘Dietary Guidelines for Americans’’.  This requirement was added to the statute in 1984. After the 2005 USDA/HHS Dietary Guidelines were issued, the changes were so significant that USDA contracted with the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine to develop recommendations to update the meal patterns and nutrition standards. 

While school food authorities and industry made great efforts to comply with the new school lunch meal pattern, many found that complying with the new rule’s requirements for grains and meat/meat alternates was extremely difficult and not necessary as long as there was a calorie limit.

USDA has recognized the operational challenges presented by these limits, and waived the weekly maximum limit on grains and meat/meat alternates through the next school year.  SNA, joined by industry, praised this change, but is asking to make the change permanent and enact S.427. 

SNA is also asking Congress to delay the implementation of the School Breakfast Program modifications pending resolution of outstanding issues related to the School Lunch Meal Pattern and to give local schools more flexibility in setting the price of a local lunch and breakfast.  Since 1946, local school boards have set the price of a “paid” meal (meals that are not free or reduced price).  That was changed by the most recent reauthorization statute in 2010.  SNA would like to amend the recent change so that schools operating in the black can again make their own local decision.  They believe (and I agree) that local school boards are in the best position to know what parents in the community can afford.     

The school nutrition program is a very successful program but it is also very complicated to run.  The administrators are deeply committed to the nutritional changes…and have been national leaders in this regard….but must also cater to a very finicky customer on a very limited budget.  The current reimbursement for a free lunch is only $2.86 a meal….less than a latte.  That is for food, labor and all of the indirect direct expenses that local schools charge against the food service budget. 

Further, the school food service office is required to collect and verify family income data for children seeking free or reduced price meals….data that is collected by the IRS and the State Welfare Department. The school then uses the information for the many other school programs that require income data even though the cost of the collection process is absorbed 100% by the school food service program. If school food service could get out of the accounting business it would be a lot easier for schools to focus on nutrition.

The bottom line, however, is that the school lunch and school breakfast programs, along with the snack and dinner programs, are critical national priorities.  We can’t compete in a world economy without an educated work force and we can’t educate our children if they are hungry.  Our new Secretary of State John Kerry made a similar point in his first major address at the University of Virginia.  Discussing the challenge of globalization, he said: “For all that we have gained in the 21st century; we have lost the luxury of just looking inward. Instead, we look out and we see a new field of competitors.”

The public employees who are on the line each day….both literally and figuratively….feeding our children, deserve our appreciation and our support.


Marshall Matz served as Counsel to the Senate Agriculture Committee and founded Friends of the World Food Program—USA.  He specializes on agriculture policy at OFW Law.