During a recent visit to Wilber-Clatonia High School, I was approached by a number of students and staff regarding new school menu requirements. The new rules, while well-intentioned, are leaving many students hungry and squeezing already limited school budgets.
I recognize the need to address health issues associated with childhood obesity and diabetes, and I applaud efforts to continually find ways to improve school meals. But we must focus on addressing these concerns without undermining the number one priority of the school meal program: feeding hungry children. For many students, school meals are their primary source of nutrition, and reducing the size of meals could affect the overall health and wellness of these and other students.
The new school meal requirements stem from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. This legislation gave the USDA authority to set nutritional standards for all food regularly sold in schools, including cafeterias, school stores and vending machines. The legislation failed to adequately consider budget limitations faced by school lunch providers, and gave no credit to schools already taking steps to offer students healthier choices. The result for many schools has been a lose-lose scenario: decreased meal sizes and increased costs.
Uniform policies and one-size-fits-all approaches rarely work in a nation as large and diverse as ours. Why should the same strict dietary requirements be applied to children with vastly different needs, levels of activity, and lifestyles? For example, athletes have different needs than non-athletes, and children working on a farm likely need more energy than those living elsewhere. If states and local school districts were given more flexibility to comply with the rules, they would have a greater ability to manage their budgets and meet the unique nutritional needs of each student.
The same is true of federal education policies in general. Unfunded mandates and strict national requirements have limited the ability of teachers to do their jobs and for school boards to spend limited resources as they see fit. Decisions on what is taught in the classroom and what is served in the cafeteria are better made at the local level.
In light of the feedback I have received from officials, parents, and students across Nebraska surrounding the implementation of the new meal standards, I wrote a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack expressing my concerns. In my letter, I encourage Secretary Vilsack to review the current guidelines and consider abandoning the bureaucratic and burdensome approach to school meal planning. I am also asking for local officials to be given more flexibility in implementing the guidelines, and for the USDA to conduct a thorough evaluation of cost and participation rates across the county.
Allowing for more flexibility in the new requirements would help school districts manage their budgets and importantly, nourish their students with adequate, quality and healthy meals. We can all agree on these goals, and I hope the USDA will reconsider the new school lunch regulations.