WASHINGTON, March 2, 2015 – Sodium limits for schools would be frozen at their current limits and a whole grain requirement would be cut in half under proposed legislation that school nutrition directors will be lobbying Congress this week to pass.  

Sen. John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican who chairs the Senate Agriculture’s nutrition subcommittee and is also a member of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, announced Monday that he was proposing the legislation at the request of the School Nutrition Association, which represents the food service directors. 

The measure takes aim at two of the nutrition standards that the association’s members say have been the most difficult and expensive to implement. The group also has concerns about the fruit and vegetable requirement – students are require to take a fruit or vegetable with each meal - but that wouldn't be addressed by Hoeven’s bill.

Hoeven told SNA members he was prepared to attach his legislation to the USDA appropriations bill if Congress doesn’t reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the 2010 nutrition law that directed USDA to upgrade school meal standards to address childhood obesity. The authorization law expires Sept. 30.

“If we can’t get it reauthorized the way we want we’ll go to the purse strings,” Hoeven said, referring to the appropriations process.

SNA is sending a letter to senators Tuesday endorsing Hoeven’s Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act. Hoeven said he was still looking for co-sponsors for his bill, which will be formally introduced later..

USDA’s fiscal 2015 spending bill included policy riders allowing states to exempt schools from meeting the department’s 100-percent whole grain requirement and barring the department from implementing lower sodium requirements set to take effect in 2017.

Because they part of an appropriations bill, the policy riders are only temporary. They would have to be renewed by Congress for fiscal 2016. And in any case, SNA officials say the whole wheat provision doesn’t go far enough because the waiver process is left up to states.

“Some schools really do need the exemption yet their states are going to disallow the opportunity,” a school service director in Vermont told USDA officials who were briefing SNA members.

Under Hoeven’s bill, only half the grains served in schools would have to be whole grain.

Under USDA's existing sodium standard, which took effect with the current  school year, school lunches are limited to 1,230 milligrams for elementary kids, 1,360 for middle schoolers and 1,420 milligrams for high school students. Those limits are set to drop to 935 milligrams, 1,035 milligrams and 1,080 milligrams respectively in 2017 and then drop again in 2022. There are separate, lower standards for breakfast.

“We cannot imagine how we will meet the 2017 targets and keep the kids in the lunch line,” said SNA’s president, Julia Bauscher, told Agri-Pulse. “ We already have students who won’t participate because they think the food is bland. We’ve got a lot of concern about that.”

Bauscher is school nutrition director for the Jefferson County school system in Louisville, Ky.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack defended the standards in a speech to the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference today. “We’ve improved meal standards… much to the chagrin of some of our friends in Congress,” Vilsack said. “The reality is 70 percent of our kids in elementary school think these changes are good, 63 percent of the kids in high school think that the changes are good. If I had a 70 percent or a 60 perfect approval rating, I’d think I was doing a pretty good job.”