Frank Dipasquale and Cathy Schuchart 0000-00-00 00:00:00
SNA applauds reasonable changes and a collaborative process, as USDA publishes a final rule establishing new nutrition standards for school meals. COMPLETING A PROJECT THAT BEGAN SEVEN YEARS AGO, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food & Nutrition Service (USDA/FNS) published the final rule establishing new national nutrition standards for school meals on January 26, 2012. The new meal pattern for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) will be effective July 1, 2012; changes to the School Breakfast Program (SBP) will be phased in beginning July 1, 2013. The new requirements raise the nutrition standards for school meals for the first time in more than 15 years. It’s been a long wait for school nutrition operators—and our industry partners—but, when considering the complexity of the undertaking and the far-reaching impact of the results, SNA applauds the government’s commitment to ensuring a thoughtful, inclusive, pragmatic approach, which began with the release of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It included a 2008 contract to the Institutes of Medicine (IOM), which was charged with forming a representative taskforce to develop recommended nutrition standards for the federal school nutrition programs. IOM’s report, School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children, released in 2010, became the foundation for the regulatory work of USDA/FNS, as well as the basis of a provision of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. As most SN readers know, a proposed rule was published in January 2011. By the end of the 90-day comment period, USDA/FNS had received a whopping 133,268 comments, and it spent the next nine months fine-tuning various aspects of the complex regulation to address the top concerns voiced by many different stakeholders. The final published rule reflects an understanding that changes need to be practical and realistic to successfully meet our common goal: to improve the nutritional quality of school meals as a critical step in building a healthy future for our nation’s children. Partners for Progress Throughout the entire process, SNA has been at the table, offering the expertise and conveying the challenges of school nutrition professionals and industry partners in their commitment to provide healthier choices for students. SNA was represented on the IOM panel, and its leaders have been invited to numerous meetings with top USDA and White House officials to discuss areas of mutual concern. In addition, USDA has made it a priority to hold a number of listening sessions, forums and education sessions at the Association’s three major national meetings: the Child Nutrition Industry Conference, the Legislative Action Conference and the Annual National Conference. And, as co-chair of the Child Nutrition Forum (a coalition of some 200 organizations representing millions of stakeholders), SNA is recognized as a leader in child nutrition-related legislative and regulatory action. Truly, the project has been the very model of a collaborative, cooperative effort, featuring the participation of numerous allied groups representing a wide range of stakeholders. And the resulting regulation is a testament to that approach, praised by a diverse array of advocates, from SNA and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to the National Education Association and the Food Research and Action Center. Consider just a few of the changes that were made to the final rule, many of which were among the suggestions SNA included in our comments submitted last spring: ■ The vast majority of changes to the SBP will be made gradually, with implementation phased in over a three-year period. (School food authorities that have the ability to implement any or all of the phased-in SBP meal requirements concurrently with NSLP changes in SY 2012-13 may do so, with the approval of the state agency.) ■ A daily meat/meat alternate will not be required for breakfast. ■ Changes made to the SBP translate to a significant reduction in the expected rise in the per-meal cost for breakfast (from 51 cents to 28 cents). ■ Students may take smaller portions of fruit/vegetables under Offer versus Serve. ■ The whole grain-rich requirement will be phased in. Initially, at least half of the grains offered during the week must meet this standard; by 2014-15, all grains must be whole grain-rich (containing at least 51% whole grains). ■ Starchy vegetables are not restricted, and minimums for all vegetable subgroups (dark green, red/orange, beans/peas/legumes, starchy and other) are now weekly, rather than daily. ■ Tofu and soy yogurt will now be allowable as meat alternates. ■ An additional year for the implementation of the second sodium target is provided, giving the food industry more time to reformulate products—and school children more time to grow accustomed to foods with less-salty flavor. Plus, implementation of the second and final targets will be subject to USDA’s review of data on the relationship between sodium intake and human health. Making It Happen SNA takes pride in the fact that many of its members are well ahead of the curve, having implemented a number of these changes on a voluntary basis or to meet criteria for the HealthierUS School Challenge initiative or local wellness policies. Nonetheless, the meal pattern changes are a significant departure from current requirements, so there will be a lot for everyone involved with school nutrition programs to learn. The new regulation will impact procurement, menu planning, food preparation, service and, of course, record keeping. Staff at USDA/FNS are working hard to develop guidance regarding implementation and crediting, plus training materials for state agency personnel, as well as a variety of technical assistance and training resources for operators. Other projects include updates to the Food Buying Guide and changes to the CN Labeling Program (to begin including whole grains) and the Child Nutrition Database. Interactive online training, developed by FNS and the National Agriculture Library, is expected to be available soon. Separately, the USDA Foods Program is already supporting the new requirements by offering more reduced-sodium products, including cheeses, meats, canned beans and frozen and canned vegetables. USDA/FNS staff recognize that implementation of such a complex rule will be a dynamic process. As state agencies and operators begin to make required changes, they may encounter areas that need additional clarity, guidance or tweaks. USDA/FNS wants to hear feedback in order to provide assistance as needed. In addition, funding will be available to state agencies for two years through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to underwrite training and assistance that helps school districts implement the new requirements. The Association is investigating the possibility that such funding could be used for collaborative projects—such as conferences and workshops— between SNA state affiliates and their respective state agencies. Indeed, SNA is already an active partner in developing resources to help its members implement the new rule. For example, in early February, USDA/FNS and SNA’s School Nutrition Foundation jointly presented a webinar about the new regulations. This was just the first of many such collaborations. USDA/FNS will conduct a training session for state agency personnel at SNA’s Legislative Action Conference in Washington, D.C., this month. Also, several education sessions are being planned for the Annual National Conference in Denver in July. And be sure to check out the online “Meal Pattern Resource Center” at SchoolNutrition.org; content is exclusive to Association members. This one-stop shop is updated continually as materials become available. At press time, the site featured a number of USDA resources on the final meal pattern (including an implementation timeline and a comparison of current and new requirements); talking points from SNA on how to discuss the new meal pattern with media and stakeholders in local communities; a legislative analysis; links to national media coverage; and archived webinars. What’s Next? The meal pattern regulation is just one of a number of major components of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that school nutrition operations will be asked to implement in the coming months and years. That means that both USDA/FNS and SNA must turn attention to some of the other big changes coming down the pike. Among these: ■ Competitive Foods. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act ends the longstanding “time and place rule” and providing for the establishment of consistent nutrition standards throughout the entire school. USDA/FNS will be allowed to develop nutrition guidelines for a la carte service, vending machines, school stores and other foods sold in competition with the NSLP/SBP. At press time, USDA/FNS had indicated it expects to issue a proposed rule as early as this month. SNA’s Board of Directors will create a member task force to review the proposed rule and draft a response. ■ 6-cent Reimbursement Increase. Upon compliance with the final updated NSLP meal pattern requirements, school food authorities will be eligible to receive an additional 6 cents in meal reimbursement. USDA/FNS has indicated that it will issue an interim final rule soon, with funding available to school food authorities in October 2012. In addition, SNA’s public policy team will be monitoring progress on other aspects of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, including indirect costs and meal price equity. These and other top legislative priorities for 2012 are described in SNA’s annual Legislative Issue Paper, which is detailed in this month’s Washington Watch column, page 64. SNA looks forward to working with its partners at USDA and the White House on all these initiatives and other efforts designed to support the creativity and commitment of America’s school nutrition professionals in their work to feed children tasty, nutritious meals. Now that the final meal pattern rule has been published, School Nutrition wants to know which menu provisions you already meet—and which ones you expect to need more help and guidance from USDA and SNA in order to comply. Visit “Side Dish,” School Nutrition’s online community, to share your thoughts. Log in to www.schoolnutrition.org/snn and click on “Discussion Forums.” A Monumental Day Most federal regulations are published with relatively little fanfare accompanying the notice in the Federal Register. In a rare departure, the new meal pattern rule was unveiled by First Lady Michelle Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Assistant White House Chef Sam Kass at a press event held at Parklawn Elementary in Alexandria, Va., on January 25, 2012. SNA was represented at the event by President Helen Phillips, SNS, CEO Frank DiPasquale and Parklawn host Penny McConnell, SNS, director of food and nutrition services, Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools and SNA President 1995-96. “When it comes to our children, we must do everything possible to provide them the nutrition they need to be healthy, active and ready to face the future,” said Secretary Vilsack, about the new standards. This sentiment was echoed by the First Lady. “When we serve higher-quality food in our schools, we’re not just fighting childhood obesity; we’re taking the important steps that are needed to fight child hunger, as well,” said Mrs. Obama. “That’s why so many schools across this country have been working so hard to improve the food that they serve to our kids in schools. In fact, there are many schools that have been meeting these new standards for years, long before this legislation was passed. Thousands more have made significant improvements, offering their students a whole array of healthy—and tasty, mind you—new options.” In a blog posting following the formal release, Chef Kass called the event a “monumental day” for kids, families, educators, administrators, foodservice workers and the advocates who have led the charge and worked hand in hand to deliver healthier, more nutritious food to our nation’s school children. “We know that we would not be here without the leadership and dedication of school nutrition professionals from across the nation,” wrote Kass. “School systems across the country are on the front lines of nutrition, education and health. They are as diverse as America itself. But they share an unwavering commitment to the young people they serve. Implementing the new standards represents a mission that I know school foodservice professionals have embraced with passion and energy.” Celebrity chef and television personality Rachael Ray also was a special guest at the event, serving a healthy, delicious meal that met the new nutrition standards. [Editors’ Note: Don’t miss an exclusive interview with Rachael Ray to be featured in the April 2012 issue of School Nutrition magazine.] White House Recognition First Lady Michelle Obama offers praise and gratitude to those on the front lines of child nutrition and hunger. The text also is available online at www.schoolnutrition.org/MichelleObamaLetter. Frank DiPasquale is SNA’s chief executive officer. Cathy Schuchart is staff vice president of child nutrition and policy.
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