Hearing calls for flexibility - not repeal - of school lunch rules

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, April 15, 2015 - The controversial school lunch standards approved in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 received more scrutiny in Congress Wednesday, with advocates calling for increased flexibility in the rules.

The House Education and Workforce Committee held the hearing to look at the current state of federal child nutrition programs ranging from the school lunch provisions to the Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Lawmakers are preparing to reauthorize two pieces of key nutrition legislation: the Richard B. Russel National School Lunch Act and the Child Nutrition Act.

Lets Talk Food

“No child should go to school hungry - it's that simple,” committee chair Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said in his opening statement. “Today's discussion is not about whether we agree on this basic principle; I am confident we all do. Instead, our discussion today is about beginning a larger effort we will continue in the coming months to ensure the best policies are in place to help reach this goal.”

School Nutrition Association (SNA) President Julia Bauscher, one of the witnesses at the hearing, pressed for greater flexibility for school districts to meet the standards. She pointed to the requirement of one-half cup of fruits or vegetables be served with every meal. While there is little objection to including fruits and vegetables in meals, Bauscher said the requirement - rather than the option - is leading to waste when students opt to throw the food away.

She said SNA is requesting 35 cents more in federal funding for each lunch and breakfast that is served in the school lunch program, up from the additional six cents the government provided when the new standards were put in place.

“That will help school food authorities afford the foods that we must serve, but unfortunately that won't make students consume it,” Bauscher told lawmakers at the hearing. “And that's what we're also focused on…finding ways to ensure students will eat the healthy foods that we're making available to them and not throw it in the trash.”

Bauscher said SNA supported the 2010 bill at the time of its passage and it still supports it, but the 55,000-member group of school nutrition professionals wants Congress to soften the bill's target levels for more whole grains and less sodium in school meals.

“We want to make sure the best meals possible are available to those students, but we have to do it within the budgets that we have,” Bauscher said, borrowing the line of an SNA colleague, who pointed out that “flexibility is free.” She said in many cases, the new requirements have forced school lunch programs outside of budgetary constraints, forcing them to ask school districts to make up the difference. According to SNA, school districts will absorb $1.2 billion in new food and labor costs in 2010.

Lawmakers and panelists also discussed weekend and summer feeding programs as well as participation in income-based programs such as free and reduced lunch offered in the National School Lunch Program.

A figure repeatedly mentioned by representatives and witnesses alike is that for the first time in at least 50 years, the majority - 51 percent - of students in the U.S. qualify for free and reduced lunches. That number led Virginia Republican David Bratt to wonder if the solution wasn't different food, but rather “gainfully employed parents who are educated to the point that they can provide food for their kids.”

Dorothy McAuliffe, the first lady of Virginia, responded by underscoring the need for sound child nutrition in the first place, saying it can contribute to a vital future workforce, military, and economy. If children are not properly nourished now, she said, they will not be able to use their education to its fullest potential and be productive members of the workforce later.

“Families want to provide for themselves, and families should; that's our goal,” McAuliffe said, “However, this committee is called the Committee on Education and Workforce. We don't have a workforce to attract the jobs of the 21st century if we have kids who cannot take advantage of the education we're providing for them.”

#30

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