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Published July 21, 2014, 10:26 AM

Letter outlines obesity issues, applauds rules

WASHINGTON — Twenty-seven former panelists for the Institute of Medicine told Congress not to change healthier foods rules for children on July 15, the same day the U.S. Department of Agriculture official in charge of nutrition reminded school food service directors who have asked Congress for changes that they have responsibilities to serve food that will result in healthy children and adults.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — Twenty-seven former panelists for the Institute of Medicine told Congress not to change healthier foods rules for children on July 15, the same day the U.S. Department of Agriculture official in charge of nutrition reminded school food service directors who have asked Congress for changes that they have responsibilities to serve food that will result in healthy children and adults.

USDA made available the letter from the panelists and a tape of the speech Janey Thornton, agriculture deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, gave at the School Nutrition Association Annual National Conference in Boston.

SNA had refused to invite Sam Kass, the White House nutrition adviser, an Obama administration source told Agweek.

Meanwhile, SNA, which represents school food service directors and the companies that prepare foods, signaled it will continue its campaign for changes to the school meal rules.

The battle has pitted the current SNA leadership against some of its former leaders who defend the new rules that require less sodium, salt and fat, leaner meats and dairy products and more fruits and vegetables. SNA wants USDA to pull back on the rules and allow schools to offer fruits and vegetables but not require students to take them. The battle also pits the processed food industry against the fruit and vegetable industry in a quest for school nutrition dollars.

“As former panelists for the Institute of Medicine, and as research scientists with decades of experience in the fields of child health and well-being, we write to urge that Congress refrain from circumventing the time-tested process by which our country’s nutrition standards and guidance have been established,” the letter to Congress said.

“That process, relying upon the nation’s foremost experts assembled by the Institute of Medicine, recently revised the nutrition standards for K-12 school meals and for foods approved for purchase with vouchers in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Virtually all nutrition experts applaud these improved standards.”

The panelists said they “maintain that this IOM process and the resulting new standards should not be disturbed.

“In the last 30 years, the rate of obesity among U.S. children has more than tripled,” the letter said. “As a consequence, serious medical conditions, including Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension, previously seen only in adults, are increasingly being diagnosed in childhood, with serious consequences anticipated for the youth, their parents, the health care system, and the national economy.”

The panelists were referring to the guidelines for federal food programs that resulted from their work and were put into law under the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.

The House version of the fiscal year 2015 Agriculture appropriations bill would require USDA to grant a waiver from the healthy meals rules to any school that says it has been losing money in their program for six months.

That House bill also would allow the use of white potatoes in the WIC program, even though the IOM and federal agencies have concluded that pregnant women, infants and mothers already get plenty of white potatoes and need other vegetables.

SNA has also said it wants Congress to pull back some of the regulations permanently when the child nutrition programs come up for reauthorization in 2015.

The Senate version of the Agriculture appropriations bill would also allow the use of potatoes in the WIC program but takes a softer approach to changes to school meals.

In Boston, Thornton said she wanted to thank the school food service directors for the changes they have instituted, but also made it clear that the Obama administration does not plan to back down from the healthier meals rules.

Solving the problems

Thornton noted that when she heard there were problems with the new school meal rules near her home in eastern Kentucky, she called the school food service director, who told her that he had resolved declining participation and waste by involving students in the decision making.

The director explained the needs and took the students to food shows, Thornton said. After the students chose some of the recipes, participation increased and the program’s income increased so he was able to buy new equipment for the cafeteria, she said. Attendance, participation in school meals and test scores have all gone up, she added.

A Texas school food service director saw declining participation until he and the students developed a marketing plan that made the lunch room the “cool place to be,” she said.

These accomplishments did not come easily, Thornton said, but were achieved because the food service directors in those schools were committed to making the healthier meals work.

“Those who believe we will never succeed are likely setting themselves up for failure,” Thornton said.

SNA leaders have said they turned to Congress for changes because USDA did not listen to their complaints. But Thornton said comments from SNA members have resulted in a phased-in approach to breakfast and lunch, removal of the requirement for meat at breakfast, lengthening the time to reduce sodium, an end to the limit on starchy vegetables, and reductions in the fruit and vegetable requirements.

“We won’t give up because what you are doing is the right thing to do for kids,” Thornton said. “Think of your own kids at home. They won’t always make the right choice, but do we give in? No, we don’t, we stand our ground.”

Children need to learn and grow into responsible, healthy young adults “and learn what is easy is not always right and what is right is not always easy,” Thornton said. She added that healthier foods are needed to make sure kids do the best in school, health costs are kept down and “so we have healthy young adults ready to serve in the military.”

Healthier school meals “will result in one of the biggest impacts on our country tomorrow,” she concluded.

Meanwhile, SNA said in a news release that it will continue to promote its three-year legislative plan that calls for the changes, including using its political action committee to make campaign contributions to achieve its purposes.

“SNA is very fortunate to have such engaged and passionate school nutrition professionals taking an active interest in advocacy efforts,” said Wendy Weyer, SNA’s public policy and legislation chair and a Seattle school nutrition official.

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