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Posted at 1:11 PM ET, 12/14/2010

Wootan: Hunger-Free Kids Act will have big impact

By Tim Carman

Margo Wootan had seen the story I wrote last week about the limited benefits of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which President Obama signed yesterday. The director for nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest said the article read like a foodie wrote it. She was smiling as she said that. There was no malice in her voice, but the subtext seemed clear: My foodie instincts -- and others like mine -- can't grasp the deeper complexities of this new law.

"It’s just too simplistic to judge this bill by the money because there are all of these no-cost reforms," she told me after the presidential signing ceremony at Harriet Tubman Elementary School, "that will help to insure that there is more healthy food in school lunches and breakfasts.”

Wootan has been on the front lines of school lunch reform for years, and she knows this bill like a sixth grader knows how to piece together "lunch" from vending machine junk food. She says there are a number of important provisions in the law that tend to get overlooked by the naysayers who focus too much attention on the tiny six-cent increase in school lunch meals.

The first provision, Wootan says, is the requirement that schools raise the price of meals for students who can afford it. Apparently school districts have been loathe to require the more financially stable families to cover the entire cost of their children's lunches, which then forces administrators to subsidize the paid meals with government reimbursement money.

"They’re required to raise the price over time," Wootan says, "and if they just do the minimum, it’ll bring $2.6 billion into the school meals program over 10 years."

Another provision will prevent government reimbursement money from subsidizing the a la carte and vending machine items, those pre-packaged treats and junk-food dishes that are so popular with kids raised on a steady diet of sugar and fat.

"A lot of people think that the a la carte food subsidizes school lunch, but really it’s the other way around," Wootan says. "In most schools, the lunch ends up subsidizing the Ho Hos, the Little Debbie snack cakes, the pizzas that are sold a la carte because they don’t factor in the whole costs of selling those foods.”

What kind of costs? Things like labor, electricity, and other overhead bills are routinely charged to the meals program, Wootan says. Similarly, administrators have historically viewed lunch reimbursement money as a giant pool of cash with which to subsidize other school operations. The new law calls for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a study on what school districts are charging the meal program in these so-called "in-direct" costs and then draft regulations to address the costs.

"The math department is not charged for the janitorial services. Why should the school food services be?" says Wootan. "If less money is charged to the food service program for lights and overhead and janitorial services, the more money can go into healthy foods."

The other important part of the law, Wootan notes, is the forthcoming nutritional standards for vending machine and a la carte foods. The standards, drafted by the non-partisan Institute of Medicine, still have to wind their way through the comments and approval process, but if accepted as is, they will radically change the school meals program.

"It will get soda and candy bars out of the schools, but it’s also important for the meals because it’s hard for the school lunch program to serve a very nutritious meal if kids can instead go to the a la carte line and get french fries and pizza," Wootan says. "And so by getting rid of the junk food and a la carte [foods], more kids will participate in the meals, and the more kids who participate the better. Because if the child buys three slices of pizza and a Gatorade in the a la carte line...the school doesn’t get any reimbursement [money]. But if they buy a balanced meal, then the school gets a 26 cents reimbursement, plus about 20 cents in commodities."

In other words, the benefit of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act goes way beyond those six extra cents per meal.

By Tim Carman  | December 14, 2010; 1:11 PM ET
Categories:  Food Politics  | Tags:  Margo Wootan, Tim Carman, nutrition, school lunch  
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Nice assessment of the Hunger-Free Kids Act. Kudos to you, Tim, for swallowing your pride and offering a thoughtful analysis of the merits of the legislation.

- Brook,

Posted by: brook2 | December 14, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Well,Tim, all I can say is I told you you needed to talk to Margo. But you shouldn't take everything she says at face value, either. Take, for instance, that provision about schools having to raise lunch prices for kids who pay full fare. There's a cost to raising prices: losing kids from the program. In fact, raising prices as this law envisions could drive hundreds of thousands of kids from the subisidized meal line, which could really hurt the economies of scale kitchen count on to make their math work. School food professionals liken this to the Reagan era, when out.

You can read about it here:

There is very little in this bill that's friendly to lunch ladies, including all those new nutrition standards schools are supposed to pay for with a measly six cents. But that's the problem trying to fix shcool food in Washington. It has so little to do with how the food is actually made and served on site. But then Margo Wootan is a lobbyist, not a school cook. That's her sole perspective.

Posted by: euclidarms | December 14, 2010 7:28 PM | Report abuse

Also, it's a bit of a stretch to say that the subsidized meals support the a la carte program. What can be said is that while a la carte often generates a good deal of revenue, the costs of that revenue are rarely factored in--such as the overhead costs you've mentioned here.

There's nothing in the recently passed law that would get rid of a la carte lines, and to suggest they will simply vanish and kids will automatically switch to eating in the subsidized meal line is ludicrous. The law calls on the USDA to develop standards for foods sold a la carte and in vending machines and in school stores that conform with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It could be that some foods (Eskimo pies? Fruit rollups? Gatorade?) will disappear from a la carte, or that they will merely be reformulated. There's no reason why pizza, for instance, could not continue to be sold a la carte, since it's typically offered as a subsidized meal as well, and there's usually nothing to prevent kids from buying additional slices of pizza. Or hot dogs. Or hamburgers. In fact, the main reason kids eat a la carte may be the stigma that attaches to buying food in the subsidized meal line. For a lot of kids, it just isn't cool. It means you're poor.

No, the only solution would be to get rid of a la carte altogether, as Ann Cooper has in Boulder, but then you'd have to market to kids like crazy to get them to buy the subsidized meal instead of, say, bringing a lunch from home or buying lunch at a local fast food joint.

I'd say it's Margo Wootans view of things that is rather simplistic.

Posted by: euclidarms | December 14, 2010 8:12 PM | Report abuse

I am an RD for a school district in CT. There is already legislation at both the State and Federal level which prohibits the sale of soda and candy in schools.

Posted by: EatUrVeggies | December 15, 2010 6:10 PM | Report abuse

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