The National Cheese Institute last week asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to adopt a formal policy to purchase more reduced-fat and light cheeses for use in school lunch programs and to increase program funding. These suggestions were part of a complete package of recommendations made earlier this year by IDFA during the department's listening sessions on the Child Nutrition Act.
In a letter to USDA's under secretary for Food and Consumer Services, NCI Chairman Gary Vanic commended the department for its role in providing nutritious commodity foods through the National School Lunch program. Despite many improvements to the program, Vanic said there remains an outdated public perception that these are surplus products. Directing USDA resources to reduced-fat and light cheeses would help to correct this perception and would encourage state school foodservice agencies to try the many new and improved cheeses on the market today, he said.
Most food served in the national school lunch program is purchased from commercial markets using cash assistance provided by USDA. However, government-donated commodities, such as fruits and vegetables, cheese and meat, are used in about 15 percent of the food served on school lunch lines.
USDA spends approximately $1 billion every year to provide these commodities; of this amount, about $250 million is spent on natural and process cheese. In 2007, 140 million pounds were purchased by USDA for schools, representing just under two percent of total U.S. cheese production.
Some public health groups have been critical of the commodity foods donated to schools and have called for changes. Recently USDA adopted new standards for many commodities to more closely conform to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
"NCI's proposal to target USDA commodity cheese purchases to reduced-fat and light varieties will help ensure that cheese remains an important component of the school meal programs and that the meals are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines," said Ruth Saunders, IDFA senior director of policy and legislative affairs.
In the letter, Vanic also asks USDA to increase the funding for high-quality, healthier foods in the school feeding programs.
"The higher protein content and additional manufacturing required to produce lower-fat cheeses will require increased funding to meet the cheese volume historically requested under the child nutrition programs," he said.
NCI's proposal was part of the overall recommendations for the 2009 Child Nutrition Act that IDFA submitted to USDA on October 15.