Legislative Battles Continue Over School Lunches and GMOs

June 24, 2014

School lunchIn recent years, the much maligned National School Lunch Program, a federally funded program that provides free or reduced (subsidized) lunches to more than 31 million children each day, has garnered much attention in its role in the fight against childhood obesity. The program includes nutrition requirements for all federally subsidized meals; however states vary in how strictly they adhere to the guidelines, and the program has faced heavy criticism from nutrition experts and child health advocates. To that end, the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act spurred regulatory reform of the program, the first in over a decade. One key provision authorized the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to issue new school meal nutrition standards that are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, including:

  • Offering fruits and vegetables on a daily basis
  • Increasing the amount of whole grains served in school cafeterias;
  • Requiring school cafeterias to serve only fat free or low-fat milk and grains that contain at least 50% whole grain;
  • Limiting the amount of calories that can come from saturated fats to 10 percent; and
  • Applying caloric and sodium level minimums and maximums for each meal.

These regulatory changes aimed at the typical nutritional “bad guys”: excess fat, salt, and sugar have resulted in positive change. The USDA reports that over 90 percent of school cafeterias offer children “more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein and low-fat dairy, as well as less sugar, fat, and sodium” under the new standards.

Despite the seeming success of stricter nutritional guidelines for the National School Lunch Program, some public and private industry stakeholders seek to relax the Program’s standards.  A recent agriculture spending bill, approved by the House would allow schools to waive the nutritional guidelines if their school lunch program is losing revenue.

In the face of a possible relaxing of nutritional guidelines aimed at the typical nutritional “bad guys,” what is at stake for the newest “bad guy”: genetically modified foods (GMOs)?

GMOs are present in many raw products, such as soybeans, corn, rapeseed/canola, sugar beets, rice, cotton, dairy and produce. Because these raw products are used to make ingredients used in other commonly used food products and used by meat producers, GMOs are largely unavoidable for the school lunch programs. School lunch programs have largely only two options for avoiding GMOs: the cost prohibitive choice of using 100% organic products or using products that have been labeled as GMO-free.

Currently, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require food manufacturers to label foods that have been genetically modified. The FDA and other regulating agencies such as the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have not found any health risks associated with GMOs nor have they discovered measurable difference between GMOs and non-GMOs. However, citing a lack of evidence on long-term effects of GMOs and informed consumer choice, advocacy groups have put forward state ballot initiatives and legislation to require GMO labeling.  2014 has seen as many as 84 bills on GMO labeling in 29 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, with Vermont becoming the first state to require GMO labeling.

It is still not clear at this juncture whether nutrition experts and child health advocates will prevail over their old and new foes.  The Senate version of the agriculture spending bill approved by the House does not allows schools to waive federal guidelines and, this month, four national organizations filed suit in federal court to challenge Vermont’s new labeling law.

More information on the National School Lunch Program can be found here.