School Lunch Bunch: Who Would Like A Waiver?

H/T to Crooks and Liars for the heads up concerning the efforts by House Republicans to create loopholes for school nutrition programs.  A loophole large enough to drive a semi-load of junk food through?  The proposal, which could have some serious consequences for Nevada,  is in their 2015 Agriculture Department spending bill, and the specific provision looks like this:

“Notwithstanding any other provision of law, not later than 30 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Agriculture shall establish a process by which a State shall grant a waiver from compliance with the final regulations published by the Department of Agriculture in the Federal Register on January 26, 2012 (77 Fed. Reg. 4088 et seq.) for the 2014-15 school year to any school food authority located in the State that verifies a net loss from operating a food service program for a period of at least 6 months that begins on or after July 1, 2013.”

And there it is — if a school lunch program is losing money, then the state may grant a waiver from the nutrition standards.  C&L points out the most obvious problem with the logic, i.e. if the program is having to operate in the red, why not allow additional funding rather than gut the standards?

Let’s back up a moment and recall why the National School Lunch Program was created in the first place:

“President Harry S. Truman signed the National School Lunch Act on June 4, 1946. Though school foodservice began long before 1946, the Act authorized the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). The legislation came in response to claims that many American men had been rejected for World War II military service because of diet-related health problems. The federally assisted meal program was established as “a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities.” [SNA]  (Emphasis added)

The problem wasn’t new.  During American participation in World War I approximately 30% of recruits were rejected on medical grounds and of those rejections the fifth leading cause was “under-weight,” with another 8% rejected for what was then called “developmental defects.” During World War II the military rejected 45% of the 2.7 million men who were examined. Surgeon General Parran noted the relationship between poor health and nutritional deficiencies.  [Ruis, RWJ fnd pdf]

Whether or not the House Republicans of 2014 wish to acknowledge it, the fact remains that the NSLP and other nutrition programs have a national security basis for their existence.   However, there’s more to a nutrition program than merely mitigating rickets, and other nutrition deficit conditions. Those who harbor illusions about the issues raised by Mrs. Obama’s focus on childhood nutrition and the reduction of childhood obesity, might want to take a look at the examination standards currently employed by the U.S. military:

“a. Applicants for initial appointment as commissioned officers (to include appointment as commissioned warrant officers) must meet the standards of AR 600-9 . Body fat composition is used as the final determinant in evaluating an applicant’s acceptability when the weight exceeds the weight tables.

b. All other applicants must meet the standards of tables (see “Height and Weight” tables in this section). Body fat composition is used as the final determinant in evaluating an applicant’s acceptability when the weight exceeds the weight tables.” []

If a person is a 17-20 year old military recruit the Army doesn’t want people with over 20% body fat (male) or 30% body fat (female.) [US APD Army Table B-2]  In short, what was a national security issue from 1917 through 1945 is still an issue in 2014.

“Overall only 1 in 4 of our young adults between the ages of 17 and 24 is eligible for military service,” says Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett (ret) Obesity is one of the main reasons, he says. The proportion of recruits rejected for being overweight jumped from 12 percent in 1995 to 21 percent in 2008. ” [NPR]

So, the House Republicans would like to allow state school nutrition programs to allow waivers from nutrition standards because serving better quality food is “too expensive?”  Food that is provided by our school lunch programs…to prospective members of our armed forces?  Frankly speaking this doesn’t exactly sound like a proposal designed to “support our troops.”

Another way to see the House Republican proposal is as yet another slap in the face of those “inner city” and “urban” people.  <insert dog whistle here?>

Nationally, school nutrition programs serve 30.7 million children, in 98,433 schools and residential facilities, with 21.5 million eligible for free or reduced price meals. [NSLP]  We can bring this picture closer to home.

During the 2011-2012 fiscal year, Clark County schools served 308,870 individuals, with 137,519 eligible for free meals, and another 22,266 eligible for reduced prices — or 55.22% of the total served. Washoe County served 64,122 with 14,697 free and 3,881 at reduced rates, a 44.12% rate.

Carson City’s free and reduced rate was 48.04%, Churchill County at 46.95%, Douglas at 35.48%, Elko 36%, Esmeralda at 67.19%, Eureka at 25.30%, Humboldt at 37.37%, Lander at 27.09%, Lincoln at 42.45%, Lyon at 47.51%, Mineral at 51.75%, Nye at 58.06%, Pershing at 62.62%, Storey at 48.39%, White Pine at 52.18%. [NVDoE pdf]

If the House Republican intention was to hold the line on appropriations for school lunch programs, which are often associated with high rates of free or reduced lunches in urban areas, then the blow backhands such remote rural areas as Esmeralda County, NV, and other counties like Pershing, White Pine, and Lincoln.

 And then there’s the Privatization Game.  If a local school district or a state doesn’t wish to provide school lunches there are all manner of private sector firms anxious to get the business.  We were warned in 2011:

“An increasingly cozy alliance between companies that manufacture processed foods and companies that serve the meals is making students — a captive market — fat and sick while pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars in profits. At a time of fiscal austerity, these companies are seducing school administrators with promises to cut costs through privatization. Parents who want healthier meals, meanwhile, are outgunned.” [NYT]

While Tyson, Pilgrim and other ‘food manufactures’ got tight with corporate food service providers, Sodexo ended up paying back some $20 million for overcharging New York City schools for their nutrition progam. [Bloomberg]  As with all too many other privatization schemes, the global corporations often low-ball initial bids, reduce staff to ‘make the numbers,’ and the school districts end up paying more for less. [IPI]

If full blown privatization isn’t the goal, there’s the back up plan — more fast food available in school cafeterias — and with standards relaxed via the waiver route, what’s to prevent more fast food operations from setting up shop in school cafeterias?  The result:

As they try to keep pace with student taste, lunchrooms across the country have given up meatloaf and mashed potatoes for brand-name fast-food items. In Edmond, Okla., middle school students load up their trays with Chick-Fil-A sandwiches. In Niskayuna, NY, elementary-schoolers get slices of Pizza Hut, fresh from the deliveryman. In Livermore, Calif., the high school cafeteria offers Panda Express rice bowls, Little Caesar’s pizza and burritos from a local chain.

Those choices don’t exactly encourage healthy eating habits, as they reinforce children’s taste for fast food. But even in the face of an obesity epidemic, cafeteria directors say they need the brand-name meals to keep their programs running. []

No, fast food corporations aren’t in the business of selling ultra-nutritious provender.  However, they are a way to make school lunch programs run in the black.   Thus, if nutrition standard waivers don’t provide enough cover for the full blown privatization of a school cafeteria operation, surely they would allow the district to use “brand name meals” to get revenue.  This policy obviously isn’t in the interest of the child, the school, the parents, or even the U.S. military — but it certainly serves the  bottom line interests of the fast food corporations — even as the kid’s bottoms expand.

Who wants the waiver?

The House Appropriations Committee suggests that the waivers are an answer to requests from school districts which find the USDA regulations too “burdensome” (Where have we heard that refrain before?) and the kids don’t like the food.

Responding to the requests of local schools, the bill includes language requiring USDA to establish a process that will allow schools demonstrating an economic hardship to seek a temporary waiver from compliance with certain nutrition regulations during the 2014-15 school year. [House App Com]

So who has been backing the waiver proposal?  We find a letter (pdf) from the EdWorkForce, February 5, 2014 to Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack from Robert B. Aderholt (R-AL) begging for a waiver program.  Aderholt is the recipient of approximately $120,500 from agri-business PACs during this campaign season. [OpSec] Aderholt tells the Secretary that “local schools” want the waiver, but offers no examples or individual testimony to the point.  Vilsack replied to Aderholt on March 13, 2014 saying his Department had no authority to waive the standards. (pdf)

If Representative Aderholt is hoping the waivers be ultimately made ‘permanent’ he may be missing the point of the New York School Nutrition Association’s missive, which asks for a streamlined waiver process in order to give districts more time to comply with the new standards. What the SNA had in mind is a one year waiver.

However, there is another lobby group interested in the waiver process, the National Automatic Merchandising Association — that would be vending machines.

“The National Automatic Merchandising Association said its government affairs team will keep members abreast of developments. NAMA is also gearing up to launch an improved FitPick program that incorporates standards compliant with Smart Snacks Standards.”  [Vending Times]

The NAMA Board of Directors includes representatives from Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Hershey Company, Aramark Corporation, and Mars Chocolate. [NAMA]

During a hearing on the subject Representative Aderholt was quick to reply to any suggestion the waiver proposal came from industry sources. He insisted it came from school personnel in his area. Chairman Rogers noted that “kids didn’t like the food,” and would go elsewhere.  [AGF]  Yes, I prefer pizza to asparagus, but that’s not really the point? And, it’s really not the point for primary school youngsters.

We should also note that the Republicans aren’t endorsing the views of a preponderance of school lunch programs since about 90% of the nation’s school lunch programs are already in compliance with the nutrition standards. [AGF]  Thus, Representatives Rogers and Aderholt may be speaking for a small number of non-compliant programs, the views fit nicely into the wish list of Aramark, Hershey, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola. Funny how Republican proposals always seem to align with corporate interests? More interesting still that when the Administration modified ACA  implementation dates at the behest of major corporations and small businesses this was perceived among GOP circles as “evidence of a disaster!” and “The Administration Lied!” or, “The Administration is being Dictatorial” — however, when Congress advocates the same process — crickets seem to be the only thing audible?

The National Automatic Merchandising Association said its government affairs team will keep members abreast of developments. NAMA is also gearing up to launch an improved FitPick program that incorporates standards compliant with Smart Snacks Standards. A seminar detailing the program will take place at the NAMA OneShow in Chicago (April 9-11). – See more at:
The National Automatic Merchandising Association said its government affairs team will keep members abreast of developments. NAMA is also gearing up to launch an improved FitPick program that incorporates standards compliant with Smart Snacks Standards. A seminar detailing the program will take place at the NAMA OneShow in Chicago (April 9-11). – See more at:

Not everyone is pleased with the option:

“We are disappointed that the House Agriculture appropriations bill includes a provision that would weaken national nutrition standards for foods served in schools,” says Jessica Donze Black, a nutrition expert with the Pew Charitable Trusts. “While we commend the subcommittee for including grants to fund school equipment needed to serve healthy meals, it is unfortunate that the House would consider letting schools opt out of efforts to improve the health of children served through these programs. [Pew Charitable Trust]

Disappointed as we all should be.  The National School Lunch Program was born of national security needs, supported through the years as part of a national effort to improve the health and well being of children — both urban and rural — and our national interest is again being assaulted by corporate interests (Aramark, Sodexo) which would privatize the service, or vending interests which would like to minimize the ‘costs’ of better school nutrition standards to their bottom lines.

House Republicans appear more attuned to the catering interests than to catering to the needs of American children.


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