Thursday, May 22, 2014

School lobbies support waivers from new school-lunch rules; Senate panel forges compromises

UPDATE: After lobbying by the first lady, the Senate Agriculture Committee put a condition on its approval of white potatoes — not as chips or fries — for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. Thursday's amendment "gives the administration the ability to pull potatoes back out if a mandated study recommends that they not be included," David Rogers reports for Politico. "The committee also opted for compromise and gave Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack some flexibility in addressing complaints from school districts regarding the level of whole-grain foods they must include in lunch and breakfast meals. Since July 2012, the rule has been that 50 percent of all grain products be 'whole grain rich,' but this standard is slated to go to 100 percent before classes resume next fall." The compromise would give Vilsack six months to deliver a report “that assesses whether there is an acceptable range of whole grain products currently available” to meet the 100 percent standard."

Using school-meal programs to fight childhood obesity isn't going as smoothly as Michelle Obama hoped, mostly because some kids are turning down fruits, vegetables and whole-grain foods in favor of fatty, sugary alternatives. From 2011 to 2013, more more than 1,400 schools with over 1 million children dropped out of the National School Lunch Program, Erik Wasson reports for The Hill. And now school boards, backed by Republican lawmakers, are asking Congress to let them opt out of the program if they're losing money on it.

A Republican House subcommittee on Tuesday approved a spending bill that "would force the U.S. Department of Agriculture to give a temporary waiver to school lunch programs that can show they were operating at a net loss for the last six months," Wasson writes. "That provision is supported by the National School Boards Association as well as the School Nutrition Association. They also support other efforts, including a bill by Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) to stop imposition of more stringent standards coming down the pike." (Read more)

At the heart of school complaints are 2012 standards that "call for students to be served low-fat dairy products, lean protein, foods rich in whole grain and fruits and vegetables," notes The Washington Post editorial board. "Children can decline part of these balanced meals, but they must take at least one serving of fruits or vegetables. These standards weren’t developed by fringe food activists or imposed from the first lady’s office. They come from the Agriculture Department and are based on recommendations from experts at the Institute of Medicine. Given that a third of American children and teenagers are overweight or obese, this initiative is common sense."

But some schools have said the new standards are too costly, Alyson Klein reports for Education Week. "Under the proposal, schools with waivers would not have to comply with 2012 meal pattern standards that require schools to 'increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free and low-fat fluid milk in school meals; reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat and trans fat in meals; and meet the nutrition needs of school children within their calorie requirements.'" (Read more)

"Ripping a hole in the law would be a mistake," the Post opines. "The Government Accountability Office found that the decline in school lunch participation has been driven by fewer people paying full price, not truly needy students going without subsidized meals. If wealthier families want to feed their children other things with their own money, fine. Their choices should not be used as pretext to demand anything less than reasonable, healthy foods in publicly supported cafeterias." (Read more)

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