WASHINGTON, Jan. 20, 2015 - A bipartisan agreement to end the years-long fight over school nutrition standards and expand summer feeding efforts is on what its authors hope is a fast track to becoming law. 

The Senate Agriculture Committee approved the five-year Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act on a voice vote Wednesday. The bill would require the Agriculture Department to ease whole grains and sodium standards under an expedited rule-making process that would make the changes effective for the next school year. 

The House Education and Workforce Committee, which has jurisdiction over child nutrition programs in that chamber, has not scheduled action on legislation. But Senate aides say the House committee was kept apprised of the Senate negotiations that started last year. 

A spokeswoman for the House committee, Laure Aronson, said the panel was “carefully reviewing all the details of their proposal. We will also continue work on our efforts to provide states and school districts additional flexibility so they can better serve the needs of students and families.”

The Senate floor debate has not been scheduled. The timing will depend in part on when the Congressional Budget Office finishes estimates of the cost of various changes the bill would make. 

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said the compromise on nutrition standards “provides relief … and opportunities for all schools to be successful in providing nutritious meals to school children.”

The bill would preserve the broad increases in school nutrition requirements that the Obama administration implemented under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the law the new bill would replace. 

Details of the changes in whole grains and sodium requirements aren’t spelled out in the bill but under an agreement with USDA the requirement for whole grain-rich products will be lowered from 100 percent to 80 percent and the next reduction in sodium limits will be postponed from 2017 to 2019. 

“This bipartisan bill puts the health of America’s children first,” said the committee’s ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. “We are making sure our children get nutritious meals based on smart, science-based policies to give every child a fair shot at success.” 

The School Nutrition Association endorsed the agreement even though it fell short of making all he changes in standards that the group had sought and would provide no increase in federal reimbursement rates. The bill “offers practical solutions for school meal programs and the students they serve," said SNA President Jean Ronnei,

Agriculture SecretaryTom Vilsack said the changes in the standards would be consistent with what USDA has been doing to “provide reasonable flexibility for schools as they continue transitioning to the updated standards.”

The International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation applauded  the committee for including language intended to promote milk consumption in schools. 

USDA would be required to consider adjusting the varieties of fluid milk based on the needs of children who aren’t consuming the amount of dairy products recommended under the federal dietary guidelines. 

The bill would “help reverse the trend of declining milk consumption in schools,” said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the producers group. School milk usage dropped by 187 million half-pints from 2012 to 2014, even though enrollment grew during the period, he said. 

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The legislation also would 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 some schools in low-income areas could use to buy other canned, dried and frozen forms of fruits and vegetables. 

“Since canned, frozen and dried fruits and vegetables are often much more affordable options, this option will give these school districts greater flexibility and empower them to provide healthy food to their students,” said Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

Health and anti-hunger advocates have generally applauded the bill as well, although the Food Research and Action Center has raised concerns that new eligibility verification standards required by the bill could result in some low-income students being erroneously disqualified from free and reduced-price meals. 

“Merely by increasing the verification rate we feel there’s a likelihood that vulnerable children, eligible children, will fall off the program,” said Ellen Teller, FRAC’s director of government relations. 

Stabenow said the bill includes safeguards to prevent that from becoming a problem. “I think we’ve created enough tools to address it,” she said. Roberts said the bill was aimed at preventing errors and fraud by emphasizing the use of technology and data matching, which he said could be done without increasing the administrative burden.

The American Heart Association called the bill “a win for children’s health that builds on the strong progress we’ve made in the last several years.”

The expansion in summer feeding programs includes a provision that would allow families to get food assistance via an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card, similar to the way food stamps are now provided. In other cases, meals could be provided to kids to take home. 

The bill also includes some provision easing eligibility rules for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program. One change would allow children who are five years old and not enrolled in full-day kindergarten to participate in WIC.