Sunday, March 21, 2010

Wary of major shifts in school lunch focus

Among many items on the national legislative agenda of importance to food manufacturing, reauthorization of the National School Lunch Program may not win as much attention as it deserves. In contrast to past reauthorizations, when spending limits were the main matter, this time it is likely that efforts will center on changing the quality and quantity of food made available. Considering that the program affects foods served to almost all school age children, its potential impact on eating habits of a huge swath of the consuming public, now and into the future, is striking.

To be specific, school lunch aid is available in 99% of U.S. public schools and 83% of private and public schools combined. In addition, the School Breakfast Program is offered in 85% of public schools. Saying that no other federal program affects food consumption more than school lunch and school breakfast is no exaggeration. Reauthorization comes at a time when attitudes toward school lunches have been radically changed by rising concern with what children are eating and how this has meant inadequate nutrition and obesity worries.

In contrast to the program’s start in the 1940s when the guiding principle was a minimum level of calories for each student, current concerns would change that minimum by adding a maximum. Further, the Institute of Medicine has recommended to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages the program, that it be revised to focus on increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables and whole-grain-rich foods and reducing saturated fat and sodium. Hardly anything underscores the shift under way in federal food policies than the way one of the original school lunch goals is being questioned. The program got its start in 1946 with the passage of the National School Lunch Act. Early support came from agricultural advocates who promoted the program as a wise way of using the rising stocks of grain and other commodities acquired by the Commodity Credit Corp. in supporting farm prices. That backing led to U.S.D.A. management. Significantly, that support is still essential, since it will be the congressional committees on agriculture that will take up reauthorization. The concept of “additionality” has figured prominently from the program’s start.

This concept measures the amount by which a dollar spent on food by the government results in how much additional food consumption. The measure is in terms of dollars and cents, even though early sponsors spoke of bushels of wheat, pounds of butter and wheels of cheese. Lawmakers often pointed to the program’s nutritional benefits for children and financial aid for school districts as secondary to the help in disposing of surpluses. If there also was a gain in spending on food outside of schools, so much the better. All of that “additionality” has taken on a new complexion due to concerns about obesity and children eating too much of the wrong food. Several studies hint that any boosting of consumption on account of school lunch should now be interpreted as a policy failure when measured against what should be nutritional goals. Overconsumption of calories is now seen as a, if not the, primary challenge to the health of children. Rather than showing how much consumption is bolstered, the program now gauges success by how much school meal nutrition has improved.

In abandoning any role for the school lunch program in building markets, leaders in this shift are risking loss of farm lobby support. Since this backing has been important to past legislation, it seems likely that lobbyists not usually associated with school lunch programs will have to become involved. Even as food manufacturers are very aware of the program and its impact on retail volume, the fundamental concern has been with the way school lunches influence future eating habits. At stake in the current effort not just to reauthorize, but also to rewrite, is a great force in the food marketplace of the next several decades.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Industry expresses support for nutrition

WASHINGTON – Many segments of the food and beverage industry have come out in support of legislation to improve the health and nutrition of products sold in the nation’s schools and through other nutrition programs. The legislation has been proposed by U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. She unveiled the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 on March 17.The bill, which would provide $4.5 billion in new child nutrition program funding over 10 years, would mark the largest investment ever made in federal child nutrition programs. Previously, the highest increase was $500 million over 10 years.

“The Grocery Manufacturers Association strongly supports efforts to feed many more children through school lunch and breakfast programs and to increase the number of healthy choices in the cafeteria,” said Scott Faber, vice-president of federal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. “We share Senator Lincoln's priorities for a stronger Child Nutrition Act, including increased access to the school meals programs, science-based standards for foods sold in schools, more healthy foods available in the cafeteria, and more education about healthy diets. “In particular, we believe that Congress should give U.S.D.A. clear authority to set science-based standards for foods sold in schools during the school day. The school environment is a special environment, and U.S.D.A. should be given the power to establish nutrition standards for competitive foods. We believe that the school cafeteria line can be on the front lines of feeding children while ending childhood obesity within a generation.

We look forward to working with Senator Lincoln on these provisions.” The American Beverage Association echoed many of the sentiments expressed by the G.M.A. “As parents and grandparents, we recognize that schools are special places," said Susan Neely, president and chief executive officer of the A.B.A. “Industry has spent the past several years removing full-calorie soft drinks from schools across America and replacing them with lower-calorie, smaller-portion beverages. We believe this standard, which is already implemented and working, provides a strong cornerstone for developing a new federal nutrition standard for all foods and beverages sold in schools.”

Hank Izzo, vice-president of research and development for Mars Chocolate, US, McLean, Va., said, “Mars believes that schools are a unique environment, and we strongly support a new national school nutrition standard that will ensure children have access to high quality nutritious snacks at school.” Specifically, the company supports new standards that are consistent with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published under the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act, as well as other authoritative sources such as scientific recommendations, state and local standards and other voluntary standards that have been developed as best practices.