Clash over child nutrition programs may lie ahead

by Jay Sjerven
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The leadership of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce has issued a discussion draft for legislation to reauthorize the nation’s child nutrition programs. The draft differs in some significant respects from the bipartisan reauthorization bill passed by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry in January with regard to school nutrition standards and how they are to be reviewed over time. The discussion draft also proposed to trim the reach of the Community Eligibility Provision, which enables certain schools and school districts in impoverished areas to provide free school meals to all of their students.

The draft bill would prevent the sodium requirements under the nutrition standards for school meals from moving beyond “target 1” levels until a new target is developed that is based on health requirements for children and backed by “a majority of research” documenting that further sodium reductions are “both safe and produce beneficial health outcomes for such children.”

Under the current nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, target 1 sodium standards already are in effect. In the case of high school students, target 1 called for sodium content in school lunches to be 1,420 mgs or less compared with 1,588 mgs as the baseline average before the limit took effect. Target 2 initially was scheduled to take effect with the 2017-18 school year and called for sodium content in lunches to be less than 1,080 mgs. Target 3 was scheduled to take effect with the 2022-23 school year and would require high school lunches to contain less than 740 mgs of sodium.

The Senate child nutrition reauthorization bill called for a two-year delay, until 2019, in implementing target 2 with the understanding that further sodium reductions from that target would proceed only as supported by further scientific study.

Children's school lunch nutrition
House discussion draft differs from bipartisan Senate bill on some key points.

With regard to the whole grain standard for school meals, the House discussion draft bill said requirements should “allow for cultural foods to be served under the school meal programs.” The Senate bill would direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture to revise whole grain standards with the expectation the department will require 80% of grains served to be whole grain-rich. The current standard calls for all grain foods served as parts of school meals be whole grain-rich.

The House discussion draft bill would allow funds provided by the federal government for use in purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables for school children to be used to purchase fruits and vegetables in all forms, not just fresh.

The draft bill also called for the school meal nutrition standards to be reviewed every three years with “consultation from stakeholders in schools, including school leaders, school boards, local educational agency administrators, and school food nutrition directors” in order to certify regulations are “appropriate for the age of children participating in the school meal programs, including for the health of the children; in compliance with the preponderance of the latest high-quality research based on school-age children conducted to examine the health and safety of children participating in the school meal programs; not increasing the cost to implement the requirements of the school meal programs; and not leading students not to participate in the school meal programs.”

Currently, school nutrition standards are based on recommendations of the Institute of Medicine and are aligned with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and those standards are reviewed every five years.

The House draft bill also would raise the national average school breakfast reimbursement rate by 2c per meal beginning with the 2017-18 school year.

The Community Eligibility Provision (C.E.P.), which was implemented under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, allows schools and school districts to provide free meals to all of their students if 40% of those students are certified to be eligible to receive free meals because of their poverty. The draft bill would raise the threshold for schools to participate in the program. The draft would require at least 60% of students to be documented as eligible to receive free meals for the school to be able to provide free meals to all students.

Jean Ronnei, president of the School Nutrition Association, said, “S.N.A. appreciates that the House child nutrition reauthorization bill includes a much needed increase to the federal reimbursement rate for school breakfast.” Ms. Ronnei said the S.N.A. continued to support the Senate language addressing challenges with nutrition standards and was pleased the House draft bill “also considers practical solutions for healthy school meal planning.”

But on the proposed change to the C.E.P., Ms. Ronnei said, “We strongly oppose language to change the threshold for participating in the C.E.P., a program that has greatly benefited schools, students and families.”

Democrat members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce expressed strong concerns about the child nutrition reauthorization discussion draft.

“Child nutrition programs provide critical resources in the effort to reduce the incidence of food insecurity and malnutrition facing millions of children in rural and urban areas nationwide,” said Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, ranking member of the committee. “Strong standards and programs such as C.E.P. are providing a healthier school environment and securing nutritious meals for some of our most vulnerable children throughout the school year and beyond.  Now is not the time to walk away from the progress these vital programs have made toward ensuring the health and well-being of our nation’s future. We need a reauthorization that moves us forward, not backwards.”

The Democrats objected to a number of other provisions in the discussion draft, including “the undoing of the evidence-based nutritional standards introduced by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.”

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce has yet to set a date for a mark-up of child nutrition program reauthorization legislation.


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