On the Menu: Raising the Quality of NJ’s School Food

John Mooney | January 28, 2020 | Education
After expanding access to school meals, state lawmakers take steps to improve nutrition standards
Credit: NJTV News
The Senate Education Committee, chaired by Sen. Teresa Ruiz (pictured above), held a hearing Monday on school nutrition.

Improving school food in New Jersey has been a target for state lawmakers in recent years, from programs to expand the availability of school lunch and breakfast and, just this winter, additional funds to ease the cost for the neediest students.

Next up is raising the quality and the nutrition of the food itself, with the Legislature poised to move on a number of bills to do just that.

The Senate Education Committee hosted a 90-minute hearing Monday on school nutrition, during which experts and educators spoke of the best practices in providing the healthiest foods to children.

The next step will involve a package of bills that state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, the committee’s chair, re-submitted yesterday and that she hopes to move in the current legislative session. The bills were originally introduced late last year, but Ruiz said she ran out of time and they were carried over to this session.

NJTV News report: Senate Education Committee hearing

Among them is a bill that would hold New Jersey to the nutrition standards set by the Obama administration in 2012 and now in jeopardy under the Trump administration.

Help from nutritionists

Another would encourage, if not mandate, that districts have or make use of nutritionists in developing their breakfast and lunch programs, and a third bill would create a pilot program that would promote schools which serve only fresh and unprocessed foods.

“We are the Garden State and we should be doing better in connecting our school lunch trays to the farm-rich community we have here,” Ruiz (D-Essex) said in opening the hearing.

“Even under the guidelines set by the Obama administration, the levels of what we were purchasing were still very low, not something I would want to feed my child.”

The urgency was evident yesterday, with Ruiz and others testifying that changes proposed last year by the Trump administration are cause for concern. The administration has proposed that districts and states have greater flexibility in setting their school food standards, a move that some critics contend will only lower nutrition standards.

The key bill revived from the last legislative session is Ruiz’s proposal to set standards for school nutrition in New Jersey at levels set by the federal government in 2012, no matter what changes are attempted at the federal level in the future.

Not ‘pizza, burgers and fries’

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, put in place in 2012, required schools nationwide to reduce the amount of calories, fat, and sodium in school meals and increase offerings of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and nonfat milk to the 32 million students receiving federally subsidized meals.

The Trump administration has proposed rules that would allow districts to seek exemptions from some of the requirements, including those for grains and sodium.

“The current administration seems to feel you can provide students with pizza, burgers and fries, and that would save money,” said state Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) yesterday. “I’m concerned we have made so much progress, and we need to keep the fruits and vegetables in the program.”

The Trump administration has defended its proposed changes as providing districts needed flexibility in serving foods that students will eat, while keeping to nutrition standards. It said in its description of the proposal to stakeholders that food under the current programs is going to waste.

“The USDA’s School Nutrition and Mean Cost Study found that children are throwing 25 percent of nutrients straight into the trash can,” reads the summary. “This is not serving children well. The changes in this proposal would increase flexibility and decrease administrative burden for local districts, while continuing to ensure that children receive wholesome, nourishing meals they want to eat.”

Another bill in the package would create a pilot program of districts following “whole food” standards that serve students foods that are minimally processed and free of added sugars and other additives. The bill would set aside $1 million to assist three pilot districts over the course of three years.

Still another would require districts to employ at least one nutritionist or certified dietician. Ruiz said yesterday she would support even the state having such staff available through the state Department of Education or the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the school food programs.

Higher costs

The reactions from stakeholders at yesterday’s hearing were overwhelmingly positive, although some acknowledged it comes with higher costs.

“Our association has policies going back to 1985 that stress the importance of educating student and parents and the whole community to the benefits of good nutrition,” said Michael Vrancik, chief lobbyist for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

“All that said, one of the concerns we have is local boards and employees are the ones closest to the kids,” he said. “There is a tendency on the part of the state to step in and say we’ll require this or that. Hopefully, a lot of the things coming out of a hearing like this will become the focal point of legislation that creates a menu of options for districts to adopt.”