Senate deal eases whole grains, sodium standards

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, Jan. 15, 2015 - A bipartisan Senate agreement on school meal standards would lower the whole grain requirement and delay for two years additional reductions in sodium limits. 

Another change in a child nutrition reauthorization bill that the Senate Agriculture Committee will consider next week could result in easing restrictions on the types of snacks that can be sold in schools, according to a summary of the legislation posted by the School Nutrition Association. 

"In the absence of increased funding, this agreement eases operational challenges and provides school meal programs critical flexibility to help them plan healthy school meals that appeal to students, “said Jean Ronnei, president of the School Nutrition Association. The group lobbied unsuccessfully for an increase in federal reimbursement rates to cover the cost of serving more healthful meals. 

Lets Talk Food

The committee has declined to release details of the bill until the draft legislation is posted ahead of Wednesday's markup. SNA's support will be critical to moving the legislation through both the Senate and House. 

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.

The bill also would require a study to be conducted to determine whether another reduction in the sodium limits, set by 2022, is justified by scientific evidence and whether food manufacturers are capable of preparing palatable products that would qualify.

Under the current standards, the sodium limit for school lunches is scheduled to drop from 1,230 milligrams to 935 milligrams in 2017 for kindergarten through fifth grade, and then to 640 milligrams in 2022. 

The limit for high school students is set to drop from 1,420 milligrams to 1,080 in 2017 and 740 milligrams in 2022. There are similar reductions for middle-school students and for school breakfast.

The snack provision would require formation of a working group to recommend to the Agriculture Department additional “nutrient dense” a la carte items that could be sold in school. New “smart snack” regulations USDA has imposed no longer allow products such as low-fat whole grain pizza and pretzels with hummus, according to SNA.

Another provision in the bill is aimed at reducing waste of fruits and vegetables. Some local health departments have restricted the use of salad bars in cafeterias or prevented schools from allowing fruits or vegetables that are returned by children to be given to others. The bill would require USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue food-safety guidelines for local health officials to follow.

The bill would replace the Health, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which expired last September. Despite tweaking the whole grain and sodium requirements, the bill would essentially lock in improvements in nutrition standards that the Obama administration implemented under the expired law. 

The legislation also reauthorizes the Women, Infants and Children nutrition assistance program.

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. 

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