WASHINGTON, Jan. 19, 2015 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack applauded a Senate agreement on child nutrition programs, saying the bipartisan deal would “maintain our commitment to science-based nutrition standards.” 

The bill, which would reauthorize nutrition programs for five years, including the National School Lunch Program and the Women, Infants and Children program, would ease rules on sodium on whole grains but broadly preserves the standards the Obama administration implemented under the expired Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act

“Rather than diminish the progress made since the changes were implemented in 2012, the Senate’s bill ensures progress will continue improving our children’s diets, and it promises to end partisan battles about the future of our kids,” he said in a statement. 

The agreement has also been praised by public health advocates as well as the School Nutrition Association, even though the legislation doesn't go nearly as far in rolling back the standards as that group wanted. 

The 210-page draft bill, on which the Senate Agriculture Committee is scheduled to vote on Wednesday, would lower the whole grain requirement in school meals and delay for two years additional reductions in sodium limits. 

Under an agreement reached between the committee and the administration, 80 percent of grain products served in schools will be required 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. States have been allowed by congressional appropriations measures to provide hardship waiver from the whole grains rule. The bill requires USDA to implement the changes through an expedited rulemaking process. 

Vilsack said the changes would be “consistent with the approach taken at USDA all along, which is to provide reasonable flexibility for schools as they continue transitioning to the updated standards -- an approach that is working.”

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The legislation also would expand summer feeding efforts for children and boost a farm-to-school program for schools. The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which provides fruits and veggie snacks to schools, would be tweaked to provide a hardship exemption that schools could use to buy other forms of fruits and vegetables, including frozen. 

The School Nutrition Association, which represents school district nutrition directors, had asked Congress to block any further reduction in sodium limits, slash the whole grains requirement to 50 percent and allow schools to decide whether students are required to take a fruit or vegetable. No change was made in the fruit and vegetable requirement.