Thursday, June 12, 2014

Food suppliers say increasingly lower limits on sodium in school meals will be hard to achieve

The lunch wars are just heating up. Some schools have asked to opt out of the National School Lunch Program, saying students are refusing to purchase healthy foods in favor of fatty, sugary alternatives, which forces schools to throw out large amounts of food, mostly fruits and vegetables. A House committee responded by approving a bill that would allow some schools to opt out of the program if they are losing money on it. First Lady Michelle Obama, a strong supporter of school-lunch nutrition rules, called that "unacceptable." (Meatingplace photo: Lunch waste at a school in Winona. Minn.) 

Now, food manufactures are making their voices heard, saying the rules, as well as proposed new healthier standards proposed over the next decade, are too difficult to achieve, Lisa Keefe reports for Meatingplace, a magazine for the meat industry. Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, told Keefe, "We're hearing both from our members and from the food companies that naturally occurring sodium in meat and milk and other foods are going to make meeting the new standards very, very difficult."

New rules that go into effect this summer, call for lunch sodium limits to range from 1,230 milligrams for early elementary school to 1,420 milligrams for high-school students, goals most school districts have already reached. But future guidelines call for those numbers to decrease during the 2017-18 school year again again during the 2022-23 school year, down to 640 milligrams of sodium for elementary schools and 740 for high schools by 2022.

Therein lies the problem. Suppliers call those numbers impracticable. Jim Clough, president of Cincinnati-based AdvancePierre Foods, said most schools rely on prepared frozen and shelf-stable items that won't meet the sodium rules. He told Keefe, "The schools would have to go to all scratch cooking, and they don't have the funding, labor, training or equipment to do that."

Or, perhaps the industry will adapt by producing foods with less sodium. And tastes may evolve; the General Accounting Office reports that high school students are more likely to throw out vegetables, while elementary students are more likely to eat them, Keefe notes. That means by 2022, most children might be accustomed to eating the healthier foods. Meatingplace is subscription-only but can be accessed by clicking here.

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