Senators debate need for more flexible school meal rules

By Sarah Gonzalez

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WASHINGTON, July 24, 2014- Supporters of federally revised school nutrition standards are citing studies and testimonials that children are accepting the healthier food, but the School Nutrition Association (SNA) is requesting more flexibility for its members struggling to finance the changes.

The Senate Agriculture Committee focused on the nutrition standards for meals sold through the USDA's National School Lunch Program, which took effect at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, during a hearing Wednesday.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., cited a recent study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that finds 70 percent of elementary school leaders nationwide reported that students like the healthier school lunches implemented in fall 2012.

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“We are seeing schools installing salad bars and serving low-fat turkey burgers and burritos packed with vegetables and whole grains,” she said. “Schools are encouraging children to eat healthier by showing them that healthy can taste good, too.”

The rule mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires schools to offer more fruits, vegetables, and whole grain rich foods; offer only fat-free or low-fat milk; limit saturated fat, sodium and trans fat, as well as limit the calories offered in a meal. According to USDA, nearly 31 million students are participating in the National School Lunch Program each day and 22 million students receive free or reduced school lunch.

Betti Wiggins, the executive director of the office of food services at Detroit Public Schools, testified that the nutrition standards are working for her city as a “force for positive change.”

Since the passage of the new rules, “food manufacturers of all sizes are developing innovations designed to help us meet the new regulatory requirements,” she said.

Wiggins said nine out of ten schools across the country are already in compliance with the new standards, and added that they allowed her district to introduce new equipment, such as salad bars and vegetable steamers, into school kitchens. “Deep fat fryers are obsolete,” she said.

Julia Bauscher, the director of school and community nutrition services at the SNA in Louisville, Kentucky, said some school districts “are feeling overwhelmed trying to handle all of the changes in a relatively short time period.”

She cited USDA data that says student participation decreased in 49 states since schools began implementing the new requirements.

“Under the new nutrition standards, more than one million fewer students choose school lunch each day, even though student enrollment in the schools that participate in the program increased by 1.2 million last year,” she said.

Bauscher said the students leaving the lunch program are those who can afford to bring their lunch from home or purchase it elsewhere.

Senator Mike Johanns, R-Neb., reflected Bauscher's concerns when he said, “I worry we've thrown so much at schools that we are going to get to a point where participation goes down. Schools will back away from the program and kids will back away from the program.”

Bauscher reiterated that she doesn't want any “stigma” attached to receiving school lunch meals.

“That's why I think some flexibility is important to ensure that students keep coming to the cafeteria,” she said. “Operators need a little bit of flexibility to ensure all of their students participate in the program.”

She cited research from Cornell and Brigham Young Universities that found on a national scale, the requirement to serve fruits or vegetables with school meals results in a nearly 100 percent increase in waste with about $684 million worth of produce being thrown away per year.

“Schools have been encouraging students to choose fruits and vegetables and preparing them in appealing ways, but forcing students to take food they don't want is a recipe for failure,” she said.

Senator John Boozman, R-Ark., echoed the sentiment that some flexibility to the standards for school districts could reduce food and financial waste. “It's great that you have it all figured out,” he told witnesses succeeding with the new standards. “But a bunch of your colleagues are very frustrated.”

Senator John Hoeven, R-N.D., also suggested some flexibility to the requirement that, starting this month, all grain foods served in schools must be whole-grain rich, meaning they contain at least 51 percent whole grain.

Bauscher said she has seen some schools struggle with meeting the whole grain requirement. “I think most districts wouldn't have trouble getting to 90 percent, if there was at least an exemption for a culturally significant bread or grain item that [the students] like.”

However, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said she is worried that SNA wants to roll back the requirements for healthy foods. She insisted that, “It's easy to have flexibility, but let's actually push them to eat something healthy. When a kid is obese, he doesn't reach his full potential.”

Instead of offering more flexible regulations, Gillibrand wants to increase school reimbursements for meals by 35 cents from the current $2.92 per meal.

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