Nutrition advocates praise Senate nutrition agreement

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 2015 - A bipartisan Senate agreement to reauthorize child nutrition programs for five years is winning praise from health advocates despite easing standards for whole grains and sodium. 

The 210-page draft bill, which the Senate Agriculture Committee released on Monday, would lower the whole grain requirement in school meals and delay for two years additional reductions in sodium limits. 

Aside from those changes, the legislation locks in the gains in nutrition requirements that the Obama administration implemented under the expired Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The standards have been a top priority of First Lady Michelle Obama. 

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The deal between Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and the panel's ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan “preserves the important progress made on improving school food in the last five years while giving a bit of flexibility to those school systems that are still finding some of the standards challenging,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. 

The School Nutrition Association, which released key details of the legislation on Friday, said it would provide schools with “critical flexibility.” 

The bill would allow 80 percent of grain products served in schools to be whole grain rich, down from the current standard of 100 percent. The reduction in sodium limits would be delayed from the 2017-2018 school year to 2019-2020.

Jessica Donze Black, who directs the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project for The Pew Charitable Trusts, called the changes a “reasonable path forward.” 

“The majority of schools are successfully serving whole grain rich foods, but this will simplify planning for those that are still struggling with a few products. And extending the time available to reduce sodium while maintaining the goal ensures that schools will keep making progress.”

The School Nutrition Association, which represents school district nutrition directors, had asked Congress to block any further reduction in sodium limits, slash the whole grains requirement to 50 percent and allow schools to decide whether students are required to take a fruit or vegetable. No change was made in the fruit and vegetable requirement. 

SNA failed to convince the committee leaders to authorize an increase in the federal reimbursement rate for meals. 

The legislation also would expand summer feeding efforts for children and boost a farm-to-school program for schools. The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which provides fruits and veggie snacks to schools, would be tweaked to provide a hardship exemption that schools could use to buy other forms of fruits and vegetables, including frozen. 

The expansion in summer feeding includes a provision that would families to get food assistance via an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card, similar to the way food stamps are now provided. In other cases, meals could be provided to kids to take home. 

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition praised committee leaders for doubling funding for the farm-to-school program from $5 million to $10 million a year. The increase “creates important economic opportunities for our nation's farmers and rural communities,” the group said. “The bill is a crucial first step toward a successful reauthorization and we encourage support for the measure.”

The bill also includes some provision easing eligibility rules for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program, which the legislation reauthorizes. One change would allow children who are five years old and not enrolled in full day kindergarten to participate in WIC. 

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The Food Research and Action Center said the legislation “features some important improvements,” including the changes in summer food assistance and WIC, but the group said it was concerned that the new verification procedures in school meals could make it harder for some low-income children to qualify. 

“We will continue to work to improve the verification process and other areas of concern so that every eligible child has access to the nutritious food they need for healthy growth and development,” said FRAC President James D. Weill.

House Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., has said he plans to move similar legislation through his committee, which has jurisdiction over child nutrition programs in that chamber. 

A summary of the bill is available here

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