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Potential compromise reached on food fight about school meals

By Elizabeth Crawford

20-Jan-2016
Last updated on 20-Jan-2016 at 15:41 GMT2016-01-20T15:41:16Z

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

A bipartisan Senate agreement and proposed legislation slated for markup Jan. 20 could end the long, drawn out food fight over healthier school meal standards laid out in the aggressive Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

The Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016 , released Jan. 18 by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, reflects a hard-fought compromise between the committee, the School Nutrition Association, the White House and the Department of Agriculture on regulations to improve the quality of food served at schools, which have been phased in since 2012. Some of the standards were proving difficult, if not impossible, for schools to implement by the deadlines.

“The agreement preserves strong standards to benefit students while easing some regulatory mandates to alleviate unintended challenges facing school meal programs,” the SNA said when it announced the agreement.

These challenges included claims that children did not like or eat as much of the healthier food as they did the food served to them prior to the updates. In addition, some of the food, like whole grain pasta, was more difficult to prepare and other ingredients were more expensive or hard to obtain given the already thin margins of government reimbursement for free and reduced-cost meals.

With this in mind SNA added: “In the absence of increased funding, the agreement eases operational challenges and provides school meal programs critical flexibility to help them plan healthy school meals that appeal to students.”

Even nutrition advocates who fought to protect the updated standards appear to now be on board with the compromise.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest called the compromise “sensible” and lauded it for preserving “the important progress made in the last five years while giving a bit of flexibility to those school systems that are still finding some of the standards challenging.”

Whole Grains Council opposes relaxed standard

But as is often the case with compromise, not everyone is happy.

The Whole Grains Council takes issue with the agreement’s and legislation's proposal to back off the current requirement that all grains offered with school meals must be whole grain rich. The agreement suggests instead that only 80% of the grains offered be whole grain rich.

“While we exhaled a huge sigh of relief when whole grain requirements didn’t get rolled back to an embarrassing 50% whole grain rich, the new rollback is still a step in the wrong direction,” said Kelly Toups, program manager at the Whole Grains Council.

She explained the change to 80% whole grain is “actually a euphemism for making a meager 40% of your grains whole” because “‘whole grain rich’ simply means that at least half your grains in a food are whole – NOT that the food is 100% whole grain.”

She added that the change does not align with the newly released 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend making at least half your grains whole.

SNA argues the change “provides flexibility for schools struggling with product availability and allows schools to make special exceptions to appeal to diverse student tastes and regional preferences for items like white tortillas or biscuits that don’t meet current standards.”

Toups countered that the concept children are not eating whole grains is a “myth,” and she pointed to USDA data from June 2015 that found 97.1% of schools in the US are certified as meeting the 100% whole grain rich standard and only 10% of schools asked for a waiver for the requirement.

Other changes

Other changes outlined in the legislation include:

  • A two year extension to meet lower sodium targets originally slated to take effect July 1, 2017. The extension will save some healthy options, such as low-fat deli sandwiches, soup and salads from being axed due in part to naturally occurring sodium in the foods.
  • The potential creation and use of salad bars and sharing tables, which could reduce food waste caused by requiring children to take a fruit and veggie with every meal. Some food inspectors have discourage food sharing tables, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and USDA are tasked by the agreement to establish guidelines for their safe use.
  • A reevaluation of the restrictions on a la carte items that can be sold in cafeterias.

The legislation also proposes expanding the Farm to School Grant Program, which helps schools provide more produce and teaches students about agriculture and nutrition, and it would direct more funds to summer feeding programs.

In addition, the legislation would strengthen training and technical assistance, which the Pew Charitable Trusts praises as a needed addition. Jessica Donze Black, director of Pew's school nutrition project noted, "This proposal ensures that good nutrition remains the core ingredient in school meal programs. ... About 9 in 10 districts nationwide report needing additional kitchen equipment to prepare healthy meals, but few can afford these investments without financial assistance."

The bill would not change mandates related to the availability of soda and junk food in schools or rules already phased in related to the first round of sodium reduction , fat, calories and sugar.

Senate legislators will markup the bill at 10 am Jan. 20.

The House has not yet introduced a corresponding bill, but stakeholders, including Pew, encourage it to closely follow the bipartisan course cut by the Senate. 

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