Lawmakers told school nutrition policy could use some tweaking

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, June 24, 2015 - Witnesses told a House Education and Workforce subcommittee Wednesday that the school nutrition standards authorized by the Obama administration's Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) are a good recipe for encouraging healthy eating in schools, but could be improved with some new ingredients in the law's reauthorization, due Sept. 30.

Lets Talk Food

For one, small and rural school districts need more personnel training and resources to comply with the reviews and audits required under HHFKA, said Melanie Schopp, South Dakota's secretary of education.

One South Dakotan school district, for instance, devoted more hours preparing for compliance reviews than it had students, Schopp testified. “It took over 100 hours and they have 90 students enrolled,” she said.

Even the whole-grain requirement waivers that USDA offers financially strapped schools are difficult for food directors to apply for and maintain, she added.

Donna Martin, director of school nutrition for Burke County Public Schools in Georgia, said that an increase in the reimbursement rate for meals provided to needy students would “help accommodate rising food costs” in her district, where every child qualifies for a reduce-price or free meal.

Additional funding for training and lunchroom equipment would also help poorer school districts, she said.

“I am not here today to tell you that it is easy, but I am here to tell you that it is possible to meet nutrition standards and be financially solvent,” Martin told the lawmakers. “We would do worse (for students) if we lowered the bar to accommodate the costs by not serving them what they need to grow and achieve.”

USDA raised reimbursement rates by 6 cents per meal after HHFKA was enacted, but advocacy organizations like the School Nutrition Association (SNA) say that isn't enough to cover the extra costs of purchasing and preparing foods that fall within the standards.

The subcommittee's ranking member, Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, agreed the rate may need to be increased, however none of the witnesses or committee members mentioned a specific figure. SNA - one of the biggest players in school nutrition policy discussions - has proposed a 35-cent per meal increase.

Another witness, Lynn Harvey, the chief of North Carolina's school nutrition services, said in addition to a higher per meal offset from USDA, the requirement that only whole-grain foods be served in school meals should be revised.

“Student participation in school meals in North Carolina has declined by 5 percent under the new rules,” she said, and 90 percent of school nutrition directors in her state blamed the decline on the 100 percent whole grain standard enacted in 2014.

In a recent SNA panel discussion held in Washington, D.C., Harvey said USDA should revert to the 2012 mandate that called for half of all grains offered in school meals to be whole grains.

Her other recommendations to the committee mirrored some of SNA's prescriptions for the HHFKA reauthorization. They include continuing to allow waivers of the whole-grain requirement for eligible schools, holding off any further sodium content reductions, eliminating a requirement that each meal include a half cup of fruit or vegetables, and modifying the Smart Snack standards to allow for more food and beverage products.

While Harvey said the HHFKA nutrition standards need tweaking, she praised the law for helping to create a larger, more stable “procurement pipeline” of inputs from healthy meals.

There is currently no legislation on hand for reauthorization of HHFKA. Some Republicans who oppose certain HHFKA standards are using an agriculture spending bill for fiscal 2016 to eliminate HHFKA provisions they say cut into school's budgets.

The House bill, which was recently reported out of the Appropriations subcommittee, maintains an existing policy rider that allows financially strapped schools to receive exemptions from the whole grain nutrition standards. A second rider would prevent the implementation of further sodium reduction standards until the latest scientific research establishes that the reduction is beneficial to children.

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