Senate Republicans are joining school food service directors in pushing for relief from federal nutrition standards as Congress reauthorizes school meal programs. 

“When schools are facing financial strain and doing their best to feed children during the pandemic, I find it alarming that schools would also be required to implement strict nutrition standards for which product is not available,” the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, said at the outset of a hearing Thursday on child nutrition reauthorization. 

The Obama administration imposed new limits on sodium and requirements for whole grains under the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. During the pandemic, the Agriculture Department has allowed states to provide schools with waivers from those and other nutrition standards.

The School Nutrition Association, which represents school system nutrition directors, wants the waivers extended through the 2021-2022 school year and also is lobbying Congress to use the child nutrition reauthorization bill to ease the whole grain and sodium requirements.

Under current rules, the sodium limit for a high school student’s lunch is supposed to drop from the current cap of 1,080 milligrams to 740 milligrams in 2024.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Heart Association and other public health advocates released a letter ahead of Thursday’s hearing urging lawmakers to increase nutrition standards in line with the latest federal dietary guidelines, which were finalized in December.

“As rates of food insecurity and child obesity rise, the importance of healthy school meals has taken on new urgency,” AAP President Lee Savio Beers, a Washington, D.C., pediatrician, told the committee.

“It is critical we build on the progress made under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, to improve the nutritional quality of all foods available in schools so that they are aligned” with the dietary guidelines, she said. Since 2010, a limit on added sugars has been added to the dietary guidelines. 

Diane Golzynski, director of the Michigan Education Department’s office of health and nutrition services, said the 2024 sodium limits were challenging but doable. "It's something that we should just continue to work on, even if we have to lengthen the amount of time it takes to get there," she said. 

Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has given little indication so far as to whether she wants to tighten nutrition standards in the reauthorization bill, a move that would make it significantly more difficult to get GOP support. She could leave that issue to Agriculture Secretary to tackle administratively under his existing legal authority, experts say.

Stabenow did mention child obesity in her opening statement, saying “the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the dual challenge of obesity and hunger."

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Jessica Gould, director of nutrition for the Littleton, Colo., school system in the Denver suburbs, said existing sodium limits were already difficult to comply with, often forcing schools to reformulate meal items in ways that make them unpalatable to many students.

“Many meal staples like a turkey and cheese sandwich on a whole grain bread, or a salad with chicken breast and no dressing, and any of our scratch-made items, including our students’ favorite marinara, would be cut” from school menus if the 2024 limits take effect, said Gould, who represented SNA at the hearing. 

Committee Republicans joined Boozman in siding with the school nutrition directors.

A pizza that complies with the 2024 sodium limit, known as “tier 3," “is basically a piece of cardboard without cheese on it … I just don’t think children are going to eat tier-3 diets,' said Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., an obstetrician. 

He also argued for serving whole milk in school meals, arguing that the fat is needed to absorb key vitamins. “There is such a thing as good fat,” he said.

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