January 31, 2020

(THE ADVOCATE) Permanent link

The February Advocate

Each month, the AASA policy and advocacy team writes an article that is shared with our state association executive directors, which they can run in their state newsletters as a way to build a direct link between AASA and our affiliates as well as AASA advocacy and our superintendents. The article is called The Advocate, and here is the February 2020 edition.

This January, U.S. Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue, announced newly proposed regulations to the National School Lunch (NSLP) and School Breakfast Programs (SBP) aimed at providing school districts with more flexibilities around the federal school meals’ administrative and nutritional requirements. The impetus for this decision comes from long-standing complaints that the NSLP and SBP are riddled with duplicative monitoring/reporting requirements, as well as burdensome nutritional provisions that contribute to excess food waste and hamper schools' operational capacity to provide students with access to healthy well-balanced meals.

Specifically, the proposed regulations fall under three main categories, (1) proposals to simplify monitoring, (2) strategies to simplify meal service, and (3) modifications to the Smart Snack in Schools Rule. Listed below is AASA's section-by-section analysis of the regulation, which will overview the major provisions of the proposal and its implications on school system leaders.

Proposals to Simplify Monitoring

With regards to the first element of the proposed regulations, USDA is suggesting offering states the option to return to a 5-year Administrative Review Cycle (ARC). For context, the original transition away from a 5-year ARC came as a result of the passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFK), which mandated that USDA switch to the more comprehensive 3-year ARC – which included increased oversight responsibilities, such as the review of procurement practices and procedures – during the 2013-2014 school year. As an unintended consequence of this shift, some districts have reportedly struggled to complete reviews and corresponding oversight activities. Moreover, USDA also received feedback that the shorter ARC reduced the available time for technical assistance and training to districts, and consequently, unduly emphasized compliance over program improvement.

Additionally, under this section of the regulation, USDA would now require State Agencies to review districts– with histories of erroneous meal pattern and nutritional violations – to undergo targeted follow-up reviews to ensure high-risk SFAs comply with the administrative and nutritional requirements of the federal school meal programs.

Overall, AASA was pleased to see that USDA is proposing to move back to the 5-year ARC and to conduct targeted follow up with high-risk districts. Since the initial implementation of HHFK, school system leaders have consistently reported that the shorter 3-year administrative review cycle unnecessarily causes LEAs and SFAs to inefficiently allocate resources toward burdensome compliance-related activities, as well as limits USDA’s ability to build local and state institutions' capacities to properly administer the program. Effectively, this proposal balances the administrative flexibilities of the federal school meal programs with USDA's desire to improve program integrity, and consequently, will represent a victory for our members. Due to this, AASA will advocate for this section of the regulation to be implemented as written.

Strategies to Simplify Meal Service

Primarily, this section of the proposal relates to the nutritional standards that schools must offer children over the week. For example, current rules dictate the type and quantity of vegetables, and minimum and maximum calory counts, that districts' breakfast and lunch meals are required to contain under current law. Upon a comprehensive review of USDA's proposal to this part of the regulation, it is again clear that many of the agency's changes are intended to improve school systems' operation of NSLP and SBP by simplifying menu planning and providing more flexibilities around meal delivery across different grade spans.

Specifically, the agency is proposing to simplify meal planning by making some minor technical changes to LEAs ability to administer the federal school meal programs. For example, current nutritional provisions require that school districts serve at least 1/2 a cup of each of the vegetable subgroups listed in the American Dietary Guidelines over a school week and offer larger quantities of red/orange vegetables to students of all grades. USDA’s proposal would change this by allowing schools to serve the same weekly minimum amount (e.g., 1/2 cup) of vegetables regardless of subgroup designation. The proposed regulation would also enable school districts who use legumes – a consistently under-served and under-consumed vegetable with high protein – as a meat alternate to also count towards HHFK's weekly legume vegetable requirement.

Additionally, the proposal would enable schools with unique grade configurations to use the same meal pattern for a broader group of students; authorize SBP operators to offer students meats, meat alternates, and/or grains interchangeably; and reduce the amount of fruit required for reimbursable breakfasts served outside the cafeteria.

While policies like permitting schools to serve the same quantities of all vegetables and granting LEAs more flexibility in how they credit legumes toward meal pattern requirements may not seem like needle-moving changes, AASA was pleased to see USDA take appropriate steps to reduce operational complexity, support programmatic efficiency, and decrease food waste in schools. For our members, these proposals will ultimately lead to better strategies for serving students.

Modifications to the Smart Snack in Schools Rule

Under this proposal, USDA is also recommending to provide school districts with increased flexibilities around the Smart Snacks in Schools Rule, which establishes the nutritional standards for competitive foods sold to students outside of the school meal programs, on the school campus during the school day, and for entrées sold à la carte. If this proposal is implemented as written, then the agency will extend the entrée exemption timeframe – which applies to items sold as à la carte foods – for two days after that entrée is offered as part of a meal on the SBP or NSLP menu. In layman's terms, this would, for example, enable districts to sell pizza as a standalone item on the day the pizza is also served as part of the unitized school lunch and the following two days afterward. Moreover, this latest update of the rule proposes to permit LEAs to sell calorie-free naturally flavored waters, with or without carbonation, to students in all grade groups. 

For school system leaders, these changes represent long-overdue steps in the right direction that will simplify food procurement systems that will ultimately lead to reductions in food waste. For instance, as a result of this rule, many districts will no longer have to find multiple suppliers for identical food items that will be sold a la carte. This will enable districts to have increased discretion over how to use leftovers throughout weekly meal patterns.

AASA applauds USDA for adapting these tactics to improve local delivery of the NSLP and SBP.

Next Steps: Moving forward, AASA plans to support USDA’s proposed regulations by submitting public comments on the rule that will highlight the positive effects of the agency’s policy change on school system leaders. As part of this effort, we will be mobilizing our membership to show USDA that the regulation has broad support amongst school administrators. As of now, the public comment period for the rule is set to close on March 23, 2020. We'll need all hands on deck to get these regulations through the finish line, so stay tuned for details on how to make your voice heard in the coming weeks.