Politics plaguing school lunches


If you haven’t heard, the national 2010 legislation requiring schools to include more whole grains, vegetables and fruits at the cost of gradually reducing starch, sodium and calories is under attack by the big-food-corporation-funded School Nutrition Association.

Unfortunately for Minnesota, six of our biggest food companies (Schwan’s, General Mills, Cargill, Land O’Lakes, Hormel and Michael Foods) provide funding to this organization, including its current lobbying effort to provide waivers to school districts to get around these requirements.

Current compliance with the standards is high throughout the nation. Minnesota has a 92.5% compliance rate. This acheivement could be in danger due to a new waiver initiative.

If this effort succeeds, it will create a nutritional disincentive for school districts, reversing gains and returning them to reliance on less healthy foods to meet student caloric intake goals.

Because the new healthier diet program is in its infancy and best practices are still being perfected, some school districts are losing money on it.

Jean Ronnei, the Vice President of Minnesota’s office of the School Nutrition Association and the COO of St. Paul Public Schools, stated simply: “I’m losing customers, what do I decide to do? Charge more for that entrée?” This mindset forces districts to choose between following the law at the expense of their budgets or breaking the law to save some money. A waiver, however, is not the only option.

Minnesota’s food companies must work together with state educational policymakers to ensure districts that are struggling receive temporary support implementing welcome new standards. Until the school’s communities trust that healthy food can taste good and not break the bank, districts face pressure to make short-term financial decisions to the detriment of students’ long-term health.

General Mills has reported that they are “already working on products that would conform to the new standards.” If other food companies embrace the new, healthier standards for Minnesota’s schoolchildren, compliant food costs will align with school district food budgets.

School lunches are an opportunity to reinforce for children the experience of a healthy, well-balanced meal. The new regulations, with their increased emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, are a responsible way to adress and curb childhood obesity as well as to educate students about the value of a well-balanced meal.

School nutrition guidelines are only one piece of the puzzle for ensuring that school districts do best by their students and their community. Indeed, these new regulations ensure that a meeting of food, education and economic policy can have a progressive impact on Minnesota.