Bill seeks flexibility in school meal nutrition standards

by Jay Sjerven
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The Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act aims to balance nutrition with appeal to students.

WASHINGTON — Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota on March 2, speaking before an audience of 1,000 members of the School Nutrition Association in Washington, announced he soon will introduce the Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act, legislation that would provide permanent flexibility to school districts with regard to compliance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new school nutrition requirements. The legislation specifically will address sodium and whole grain requirements for school lunch and breakfast programs.

“Providing our students with healthy, nutritious and delicious meals is important,” Mr. Hoeven said. “The Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act ensures our schools are providing kids with good, nutritious meals but provides the flexibility they need to serve meals that are not only well-balanced but also appealing to students.”

Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the last reauthorization of the nation’s child nutrition programs, beginning in July 2012, at least half of all grains offered with school meals had be whole grain rich. In July 2014, the U.S.D.A., in implementing the act, required that 100% of all grains be whole grain-rich.

Mr. Hoeven’s bill would rescind the 100% whole grain-rich requirement and restore the requirement that 50% of grains offered in school meals be whole grain-rich. Mr. Hoeven said this would ensure continued student access to a variety of grain products and enable schools to serve items such as biscuits, tortillas and pasta that students like to eat.

In December 2014, Mr. Hoeven worked to include a provision in the fiscal year 2015 agriculture appropriations bill that allowed schools that demonstrated hardship while trying to meet the 100% whole grain food requirement to serve meals with 50% whole grain-rich foods for the current school year. The bill Mr. Hoeven will introduce would provide this flexibility to all schools on a permanent basis.

Mr. Hoeven’s bill also would prevent the U.S.D.A. from requiring further sodium reductions in school meals below the Target 1 level, which became effective in July 2014. Mr. Hoeven maintained if additional sodium reductions were to be implemented, schools would have a difficult time meeting targets when serving healthy foods with naturally occurring sodium, including milk, cheese and meat.

Mr. Hoeven’s announcement came as members of the S.N.A. gathered in Washington for their annual legislative action conference and “day on the Hill.” On Tuesday, March 3, conference participants visited their congressional representatives to discuss the association’s 2015 Position Paper and express their support for the Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act.

“The S.N.A. strongly supports the Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act,” said Julia Bauscher, president of the S.N.A. “School nutrition professionals are committed to serving healthy meals, but minor adjustments to the most extreme restrictions under the new rules will help struggling schools bring students back to the cafeteria. Too many students have swapped school lunch for unhealthy alternatives, which defeats the goal of the standards and reduces revenue to invest in healthy, appealing menus.

“Under Senator Hoeven’s bill, all schools will continue to serve nutritious meals that meet current sodium reductions and offer a wide variety of whole grains. Senator Hoeven should be commended for responding to the concerns of students, families and school nutrition professionals in his state and nationwide.”

The S.N.A. legislative action conference also was addressed by Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, on March 4.

Mr. Roberts told S.N.A. members he will bring everyone to the table as the debate over reauthorizing the nation’s child nutrition programs begins. The current authorization expires in September 2015.

“We need to find a way to bring folks together and have a big picture on how to retain the great advancements that some schools have made, and to allow other districts to meet the challenges,” Mr. Roberts said. “We do not intend to take away any successes or devolve to the lowest common denominator, which some folks have expressed concern. We intend to find ways for the program to fulfill its mission: serving nutritious meals to children in need in the best possible manner.”

Mr. Roberts in the past several weeks has visited schools in Kansas to get a look at accomplishments and problems encountered in the effort to implement the new school meal nutrition standards.

“As I visit these schools, I am finding that we need a program that works for all districts, regardless of their location and access to resources,” Mr. Roberts said. “There are close to 300 school districts in Kansas. If you think about how many districts there are in the United States, and how different each school district is, it is clear that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work for everyone.”

Mr. Roberts acknowledged and applauded the work of the U.S.D.A. in providing training and technical assistance to schools having challenges. He also encouraged S.N.A. members to remain engaged as child nutrition reauthorization makes its way through Congress.

“This reauthorization is about more than standards,” Mr. Roberts said. “It is about taking the opportunity provided us to make government programs work for the people, not the other way around.”

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