Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association
Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association

The battle in Congress over rolling back school meals standards the past few weeks has been one of the most frustrating of my career.

At a time when fresh produce in school meals is on the rise, salad bars are becoming the norm for serving kids a wide variety of great tasting fresh produce, and new fresh fruit and vegetable snacks are arriving in schools, who would have thought that we’d be fighting to defend a half-cup serving of produce in school lunches?

When the House and Senate develop their Agricultural Appropriations bills each year, the debates usually have to do with funding levels for various programs.

But this year congressional members on the appropriations committees have tried to amend 2012 child nutrition standards for school meals, seeking to roll back provisions that require meals to contain at least one half-cup of produce.

The saddest part of this story is that the proponent of this rollback is the School Nutrition Association, our longtime friend and partner in serving school kids.

In frustration over some of the new rules under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act — which SNA actually endorsed — the association of school foodservice workers is now supporting a blanket waiver provision to allow schools to opt out of all standards.

While it was a reasonable goal to want flexibility in dealing with some of the technical difficulties relating to things such as sodium reduction and whole grain requirements, SNA inadvertently used a congressional sledgehammer instead of a scalpel.

In turn, this effort has unleashed a battle splitting school foodservice leaders from the national PTA; splitting school administrators from the public health community; and even threatening to split the SNA itself, as 20 past presidents of the association have opposed their own association and called for keeping the standards intact.

Hurt feelings and fractured friendships are growing — which I unfortunately know firsthand — but it’s all a huge distraction from what’s really important.

What’s really important is helping schools comply with the rules to serve half a cup of fruits and vegetables in ways that kids want to eat. That’s a goal we can accomplish working together, as more than 3,400 schools that have received salad bars from our Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools campaign can show.

It’s about serving a wide variety of high quality, great tasting fresh produce.

The fresh produce industry stands ready to support SNA and all of its members in implementing the fruit and vegetable requirements.

We commit to providing school foodservice directors with technical assistance, training in produce procurement and handling and sharing best practices of what’s working in thousands of schools across the country.

That’s why United Fresh and our members have created a 1,600-square-foot Fresh Produce Pavilion at the upcoming SNA convention in July. We can’t compete with the promotion and glitz of the food companies that exhibit at SNA.

But we can bring produce distributors to act as consultants, product samples to show the variety of produce available, salad bars and vending options to demonstrate how to serve items kids want.

We are there to help foodservice directors where they need it most.

Unfortunately, the debate in Congress is likely to continue. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that too often people have a vested interest in extending polarized debate rather than seeking reasonable compromise.

This battle has some of those earmarks, but I’m optimistic wiser heads will prevail.

The Senate Appropriations Committee took just that approach last week, passing provisions to help schools deal with stringent requirements for sodium and whole grains, without gutting the basic requirement that schools serve at least one half-cup of fruits and vegetables in meals.

USDA, United Fresh and the public health community support that compromise. However, the House Appropriations Committee has continued down its slippery slope, rejecting an amendment offered by Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., that would have preserved the school meal rules.

Another thing I’ve learned over the years is that every issue has a flow to it, and sometimes you can win a war while losing a battle.

Rep. Farr lost the vote in committee, but debate over rolling back school meal standards is rapidly spreading through the countryside, alerting moms and dads who will not sit by quietly if Congress doesn’t have the gumption to feed kids a half-cup of fruits and vegetables in school lunches.

As the appropriations bill comes forward to the House floor, we urge members to work together on a bipartisan basis to strike the blanket variances allowing schools to opt out of all nutrition standards, and instead develop language that supports flexibility where it’s really needed, without rolling back the very basic principle that school meals need to include at least a half-cup of produce.

If the House stays its current course — over the objections of the national PTA, respected school nutrition leaders, and the entire public health community — parents in every congressional district across the country will be outraged.

If I were a congressman who voted to allow schools not to serve any produce and still call it a meal, I would not be looking forward to my next townhall meeting.

Tom Stenzel is president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

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