WASHINGTON July 9, 2014 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack met with representatives from nutrition organizations today but gave no indication that the Obama administration is willing to ease school lunch requirements.

The roundtable discussion was attended by representatives from 16 organizations, including the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which has requested waivers for some of the standards, and Sam Kass, the executive director of Let’s Move!, first lady Michele Obama’s initiative to fight childhood obesity. Kass declined to comment as he left the meeting at USDA headquarters in Washington.

“Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture continued its ongoing dialogue with those dedicated to improving our children’s health,” Vilsack said in a statement. “USDA will also lead an effort in collaboration with many of the partners assembled today, as well as others, to develop comprehensive technical assistance plans for those schools who need extra help in order to meet the healthy meal standards.”

Vilsack said the USDA will continue to work with schools and offer additional flexibility and resources where needed. There is currently $48 million available to schools for training and technical assistance, he pointed out.

Participants at the meeting gave no indication about any discussion of a controversial provision in the House appropriations bill for USDA. The measure would allow schools that experience a net operating loss on meals for at least six months beginning in July 2013 to seek a one-year waiver from certain nutrition requirements under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. A Senate bill has no such provision.

Under nutritional standards introduced in 2012, schools have to offer more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and limit calories of unhealthy fats in school meals. As of July 1, schools have to meet new limits on sodium, whole grain requirements and double the amount of fruits and vegetables offered at breakfast. Students are also supposed to take at least a half a cup of produce with every meal.

“We remain hopeful that today’s meeting will redirect the conversation to finding solutions to the challenges that school meal programs across the country are facing,” SNA Chief Executive Patti Montague said in a statement after the meeting. The group had requested a meeting with Mrs. Obama. 

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, also attended today’s meeting. She said Vilsack proposed to create a task force to deal with school lunch issues. The program would mimic a department Strike Force that addresses rural poverty.

Wootan said the group is looking at advertisement campaigns that would encourage children and parents to participate in the school lunch program. She said many parents have a negative image of school lunch but the meals are no longer “gross.” She said the step is for nutrition groups to meet again to talk about specific issues.

“While we continue to support the goals of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, our schools need help,” said Wendy Weyer, director of nutrition services for the Seattle public schools, who attended the meeting. “Today’s discussion was a step in the right direction, recognizing there is more work to be done to make implementation of national nutrition standards successful.”


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