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USDA changes some rules for school nutritionists Getty Images

Dieticians oppose lower standards for small school districts

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics wants districts to commit to putting experienced, qualified professionals in schools.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics opposes a recent rule change that weakens hiring standards in small school districts, the organization has announced.

The change is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s second regulatory rollback from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in the last three months.

The Act, passed in 2010, increased access to healthy food for low-income children and authorized federal funding for school meals and child nutrition programs. It included $4.5 billion in new funding over 10 years. The goal, which then-First Lady Michelle Obama championed, was to reduce childhood obesity.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics supports strong hiring standards for school nutrition program directors and believes the USDA had offered the districts considerable hiring flexibility.

Under the standards enacted in 2015, school district with fewer than 2,500 students were required to hire a nutrition program director with one of these basic qualifications:

  • A bachelor’s degree in a wide variety of food- or nutrition-related studies.
  • A bachelor’s degree in any major and either state certification or one year of school nutrition program experience.
  • An associate degree in the same variety of food- or nutrition-related studies and one year of school nutrition program experience.
  • A high-school diploma or GED and three years of school program nutrition experience.

The USDA changed the rules this year to expand the pool of qualified applicants “while continuing to ensure that school nutrition professionals” continue to fulfill their duties to improve children’s nutrition. The agency lowered qualifications for those smallest school districts:

  • “Relevant food service experience” is acceptable in place of “school nutrition program experience.”
  • States may consider documented volunteer or unpaid work as relevant experience.
  • If a school district has fewer than 500 students, states may allow fewer years of experience if the applicant fulfills the minimum education requirement.

In a statement, the Academy said it understands the difficulty involved for even the most experienced school nutrition professional to encourage children to eat a healthy meal. This challenge, combined with the USDA's decision to roll back the hiring standards and allow for unpaid or volunteer food service experience in place of specific expertise, is very concerning for the health of children.

“The Academy is troubled by the collective impact the USDA's action will have on children, especially since the diets of too many children continue to fall far short of recommendations for good health,” said Mary Russell, registered dietitian nutritionist and Academy president, in a released statement.

The Academy urges school districts to recognize that the lower standards are merely minimum requirements and to commit to hiring program directors with the qualifications, skills and experience to ensure that students receive nutritious, appealing food that is cost-effective.

Of the 13,584 school districts that existed in the 2015-16 school year—the most recent statistics available—the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 9,548 districts, or 70.3 percent, enrolled less than 2,500 students. More than 6,000 districts, or 46.6 percent, enroll less than 1,000 students.

However, those districts educate less than half of the country’s public school students. Districts that enroll between 1,000 and 2,499 students each account for 5.2 million of the 48.4 million students—10.7 percent— enrolled in 2015-16. About 2.6 million students attend schools in districts with less than 1,000 students—that’s 5.5 percent, according to NCES.

Source: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

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