Hoeven-King bill aims to scale back whole grain standards and freeze sodium standards for school meals.

Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota and Senator Angus King of Maine on May 1 introduced the Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act (S.1146). Their bill would provide permanent flexibility for schools in complying with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s sodium and whole grain requirements under the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.

In introducing the bill, Mr. Hoeven made good on his pledge made in March before an audience of 1,000 members of the School Nutrition Association who gathered in Washington, D.C., for the association’s annual legislative conference (see Food Business News of March 10, Page 32).

“We’re working with school nutrition professionals from across the country on the Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act to ensure that our schools have local flexibility in meeting sodium and whole grain requirements, while maintaining healthy nutritional standards,” Mr. Hoeven said.

Mr. King said, “Healthy, wholesome school meals are an essential aspect of the school day. Children learn best when they are well fed, and that increases their likelihood of success in the future. It’s no secret that Maine schools, like many around the country, are operating under tighter budgets. The Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act will help those dollars go even further by giving schools the flexibility to provide their students with nutritious meals.”

Under the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kid Act of 2010 — the legislation reauthorizing the nation’s school lunch and breakfast programs through the end of the current fiscal year — beginning in July 2012, at least half of all grain-based foods offered with school meals were required to be whole grain-rich. In July 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture required that 100% of all grain foods offered with school meals be whole grain-rich.

The Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act would restore the pre-July 2014 requirement that 50% of total grain foods served be whole grain-rich. The scale back would ensure continued access to a variety of grain products, including biscuits, tortillas and pasta that students will eat, Mr. Hoeven said.

The bill also would prevent the U.S.D.A. from requiring further sodium reductions in school meals below the current Target 1 level, which became effective in July 2014. Mr. Hoeven asserted 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.

In December 2014, Mr. Hoeven was successful in attaching an amendment to the agriculture appropriations act for fiscal year 2015 that allowed states to waive the 2014 100% whole grain-rich requirement providing school food authorities established hardship in their attempt to comply with the requirement. The appropriations act also included Mr. Hoeven’s provision preventing the U.S.D.A. from requiring sodium reductions in school meals below current levels of Target 1 until scientific research establishes that further reductions would be beneficial to children.

The Hoeven-King bill was endorsed by the School Nutrition Association (S.N.A.) and the National School Boards Association.

“School nutrition professionals are committed to serving students nutritious, appealing meals and encouraging them to make healthy choices,” said Patricia Montague, chief executive officer of the S.N.A. “Most of the new school meal regulations have supported these efforts, but some of the most restrictive mandates have caused frustrated students to swap school lunch for unhealthy alternatives, defeating the goal of the standards and reducing revenue for menu improvements.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack pushed back against the attempt to roll back school nutrition requirements.

“Updated healthy school meal standards were created based on the expert advice of pediatricians and nutrition experts and are being widely embraced by students, parents, educators and nutrition professionals,” Mr. Vilsack said. “We are very encouraged that 95% of schools are now successfully providing more nutritious meals to their students. We are working with schools to provide funding, training and flexibility so that 100% of schools will be able to successfully serve children healthier meals. Now that we are so close to the finish line, it would be unwise to roll back healthy meal standards just as they are beginning to work to ensure our kids have access to the balanced, nutritious food doctors recommend.”

The Hoeven-King bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry for its consideration.