Are Changes Coming to the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act?

Written by Milt Miller – Based on the changes in the political atmosphere, and the struggles in Congress concerning the issues with the changes created by this act, what can we expect in the near future? Will this be another “Obama Care”, with lawmakers wanting to scrap the entire act and start again? One can only hope not, as the changes in school food were much needed. Regulations were a bit too prescriptive and some revisions would be helpful, but all in all HHFKA was well intended and necessary.

In this writer’s opinion, nothing will change for at least the next year or maybe two, as the new administration has enough on its plate (no pun intended) for the immediate future. Rest assured though that over time the National School Lunch Act will fall under the political microscope. Too many school food programs are struggling nationwide to stay self-sustainable and too much red ink is flowing in this area.

The main cause to the negative issues with this program sprung from the poor rollout and implementation of the process. Changes came too quickly and industry and manufacturer input was not considered. Training and staff development was an afterthought and student eating habits and preferences were totally disregarded. This caused confusion and participation to plummet by 1,000,000 meals. Product costs increased, reimbursement compensation lagged behind what was necessary, and waste increased, all causing school food programs to struggle. Many have not recovered as yet. New government programs, like Universal Breakfast and CEP, geared to raise participation and provide healthy meals to more of America’s children only added to the confusion.

It is my hope that when the new administration turns its eye to this act they will involve industry advocates, like the SNA and others to help provide key industry insights to produce a more workable system. A system that programs can work within and not continue to deal with ever rising costs and waste. A system of progressive steps aimed at educating our youth to make healthy choices and good life decisions. A system that allows school food programs to gradually move forward without facing the severe fiscal issues caused by past oversights in policy. An educated compromise beneficial to all involved.

In speculating, what potential changes may come, these questions come to my mind.

  1. Will fruits and vegetables remain a mandatory part of a reimbursable school meal? This appears to be the main issue to increased waste and plate cost. Should this be maintained or should schools be required to provide a wider selection of these items for students to choose as they please, without being a mandatory meal component?
  2. Should all grains be whole grain? Or should we go back to 50, 60, or 80% whole grains offered daily and give students a chance to better adjust to the shift to whole grains?
  3. Will the per-meal reimbursement rates for school breakfast and lunch increase sufficiently to ensure School Food Authorities (SFAs) can afford to meet federal requirements? Congress should provide full funding to cover all related costs identified through economic analysis.
  4. Will Congress provide for an independent study of federal reporting requirements for Child Nutrition Programs in an effort to develop a more efficient, unified, and consolidated reporting system? Duplicative and overly burdensome administrative mandates currently divert school nutrition professionals’ attention from their mission of serving students.
  5. Will Congress compel USDA to complete its report and implement regulations that effectively address debt arising from unpaid meal charges? Unpaid meal charges by students continue to increase, and school nutrition programs are unable to absorb these costs. In 2010 Congress instructed USDA to report on the issue and gave USDA the authority to implement regulations to address the problem of unpaid meal charges, per Section 143 of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (P.L.111-296).
  6. Will an adjustment to the number of calories per age group be established to allow for an effective overlap, making it less confusing as to portion sizes per group? This would alleviate the burden of double handling menu certification as well as the burden of retooling a serving line to accommodate a specific group or groups in the same building.
  7. Will Congress pass a robust Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill, including Senate agreement on school meal standards, allowing school nutrition programs to responsibly plan for the upcoming school year? In the past, part of the problem was, continuity of program roll out in a manner allowing for proper planning, by school nutrition professionals for the new school year.

These are just a few of the questions to be considered. What are your thoughts? (Email me directly miltmiller@gmail.com)  I would be interested in hearing from you on what you believe needs to change in school nutrition. Until change comes, I guess we will have to just wait and see.

Milt Miller is Director of K-12 Operations at Food Service Solutions, Inc. Throughout his 33 years in the food service industry he has managed, operated and assisted food service programs to become successful. For more information on this and other topics, contact Milt at www.foodserve.com/school-food-program-assessment.html.

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