WASHINGTON, May 7, 2015 – Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts said he’s intent on enacting a new child nutrition law by Sept. 30, giving schools more flexibility in meeting standards for school meals.

But Roberts acknowledged the battle he faces in rewriting the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that authorized the Agriculture Department to raise meal requirements and regulate foods sold in school vending machines.

“I know there are some that may prefer that we not succeed in this endeavor,” Roberts said at the start of a hearing on the nutrition programs the law authorizes.

“It is time for folks to come together and be part of crafting legislation, not to stand outside the process hoping it fails.”

Roberts’ challenge is that if he doesn’t pass a bill, the programs and standards continue on even if the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act expires as scheduled on Sept. 30.

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, made clear she will resist lowering the standards, but she said she was working with Roberts on a reauthorization bill. 

“We certainly want to have something that moves us forwards, not backwards,” she said after the hearing.  “Sen. Roberts and I are having excellent conservations about doing that. I’m hopeful we can do that.”

The issue is a personal priority for first lady Michelle Obama, whom Roberts seemed to refer to in the hearing, although he didn’t mention her by name.

“These programs are.not about any one’s legacy,” Roberts said. “They are about ensuring our nation’s security, ensuring that our children are well-educated and productive contributors to a competitive economy, and about helping the vulnerable among us who cannot help themselves.”

School districts, led by the School Nutrition Association, are seeking to roll back the whole-grains standard that took effect in 2014 and end a requirement that schools provide at least half a cup of fruits and vegetables a day. The group, which argues that the standards have reduced student participation in the school meals program while increasing school costs, also wants to maintain the existing limit on sodium, eliminating a planned reduction in 2017.

 Cindy Jones, business management coordinator for the Olathe, Kansas, schools, told the committee that whole grains products were often unacceptable to students and that “forcing kids to take fruits and vegetables turns it into a negative experience.” 

The senators got an entirely different message from Richard Goff, executive director of the West Virginia Education Department, who said that his state adopted essentially the same standards in 2008, two years before the Healthy-Hunger-Free Kids Act, with no major problems.

He said that easing the whole grains standard would relieve the pressure on manufacturers to develop better products.

Stabenow argued that the relatively small number of school districts applying for waivers from the whole-grain requirement indicated that the vast majority could meet it.

Of the 19,721 school food authorities that participate in the Nationals School Lunch Program, 325 in 45 states applied for waivers from the whole-grain requirement, and 281 were approved, according to USDA.