Twenty five years ago, John Belushi started an epic cafeteria battle in the movie Animal House by yelling the words: “Food fight!” Here in Washington, D.C., members of Congress seem to be echoing that battle cry over school meals.
By now many of you may be familiar with some of the national press that has talked about a battle over school meal standards. While there are many made-for-television moments that accompany this battle, what is really at stake for our industry? Well, here are the basics:
1. As part of the last bill in 2010 that reauthorized the school meal program, Congress instructed the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs this program, to create a more nutritious and healthy dietary standard to be applied to school meals.
2. As these standards have rolled out and been applied, they have impacted how school children eat across the country, as well as changed what types of food school systems purchase.
3. Now as those standards ramp up, there has been a backlash with the School Nutrition Association (this is the association of those who run school cafeterias), which once was a backer of the new standards but the group has switched sides and is now one of the chief opponents. Food companies and trade associations whose members are losing out under the new standards are significant forces fueling the attack on the new rules.
What new meal standards are in question? Three rules are being focused upon in this school cafeteria food fight:
A. New school menus are supposed to have less processed bread and more whole grains.
B. New menus are supposed to have less total salt.
C. And they are supposed to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables being served by 1/2 cup serving per meal for both the breakfast and lunch served at school.
The aforementioned opponents are opposed to all these rules. Significantly for our industry, the School Nutrition Association in its 2014 policy goals for Federal Child Nutrition programs says that we should: “[r]emove the requirement that all students must select a ½ cup serving of a fruit or vegetable as part of a reimbursable breakfast and/or lunch.”
What does this mean for our industry?
Every day during the school year schools serve roughly 47 million breakfasts and lunches to students across the country. As a result, our industry has a tremendous stake in ensuring that our nation’s children are served healthy meals. While it is easy to acknowledge the obvious market opportunity — and easy to see why food manufacturers and producers in sectors that are losing out to these new standards are fighting back — that is not the only reason why our industry should be concerned and speak out in favor of healthier meals.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years in our country. The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese has increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2012. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese has increased from 5 percent to nearly 21 percent over the same period. Healthy eating habits are learned at a young age; for all of you who support school gardens in your local schools, or have city kids come out to the farm to learn about fruits and vegetables, you know instinctively that we need to teach the next generation about eating healthy fruits and vegetables. Western Growers is a proud sponsor of hundreds of school gardens across California and Arizona as well as educational tools used at those gardens because we believe it is critical to teach children about the importance of fruits and vegetables. School meal standards thus are vital tools in combating obesity, providing us with a market opportunity today and ensuring markets tomorrow.
What can we do about this?
In Washington, D.C., Western Growers is working to fight back against opponents of a ½ cup serving of fruit or vegetable in our nation’s schools. This serving averages 25 cents and is a good investment in our kids, and might even help parents too once those kids start asking for more fruits and vegetables. While we are doing our work here you can speak out also. Talk to your local school districts, reach out to your school boards and speak up in favor of healthy meals. The next generation of consumers for our products are growing up around us. Taking action now to support healthy school meals, not only helps move our products into schools today, but doing so ensures we have vibrant markets tomorrow.
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