Vilsack on school lunch: Fix it, dont break it

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 29, 2014 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the School Nutrition Association (SNA) both struck conciliatory notes Wednesday and told reporters they would be willing to accept compromises beyond the school lunch guideline changes proposed by House Republicans.

A spending bill approved by the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture but set to be voted on by the full committee this morning would grant one-year waivers to school nutrition programs operating at a financial loss after the implementation of new school lunch guidelines.

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The new rules require schools to serve more whole grain-rich foods, fruits and vegetables and cut down on sugar, sodium and fat.

Vilsack said the Senate Appropriations bill - which does not include a waiver but would delay implementation of some sodium and whole-grain guidelines - would be a suitable compromise for USDA. “It's not a waiver,” he said.

“You fix it, you don't break it,” Vilsack said, citing USDA's decision earlier this month to delay by two years the requirement that schools only use whole-grain rich pasta.

Vilsack also said that determining which schools would qualify for the one-year waiver would be an “extraordinary implementation nightmare for the Department of Agriculture.” He said many schools calculate their net revenue in different ways, making it difficult to determine whether schools are “actually financially struggling.”

But on a call with reporters, representatives from the School Nutrition Association (SNA) said states have the financial information for each school district and would be able to communicate which schools are eligible for the waiver.

Still, SNA leaders indicated they do not see the waiver as the sole solution to the problem of school lunch guidelines, which the group says have led to student resistance, more food waste and rising costs for school districts.

“SNA as an association would be more than happy to sit down to USDA to work these things out,” said Leah Schmidt, SNA's president. She indicated that challenging the rules through the appropriations was “not what we wanted,” but said waiting for the guidelines' reauthorization in 2015 would not help the organization's members - about 55,000 school cafeteria professionals nationwide.

On Tuesday, 19 past SNA presidents came out in support of the Obama administration and the existing guidelines. “[We] understand that major change takes time and a commitment to the goal that prompted the change,” they wrote in a letter to members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. “We believe most communities and schools want school nutrition programs that help children learn to enjoy healthy foods.”

On a call with reporters yesterday, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said Democratic members of the House Appropriations committee would offer amendments to retract the nutrition waivers.

“For decades, federal nutrition policies have been based on principles of sound scientific research,” she said, adding that House Republicans put “policy and profits before nutrition” with their appropriations bill provisions.

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