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Senators Seek Flexible Fix to School Lunch Law

Senators pursuing a legislative fix to a new school meal nutrition standard say they are not out to undermine efforts to combat child obesity but that they do believe the Agriculture Department erred in setting limits on the amount of grains and proteins cafeterias could serve students.

The lead sponsors — Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark. — say they do not want to make major changes to the federally subsidized school lunch and breakfast programs that feed 32 million children a day. Instead, they hope to make permanent a short-term waiver the Agriculture Department issued last year to allow school cafeterias more time to adjust to limits on grains and proteins, especially meat.

“We were careful to recognize that the objective here is nutritious meals and also make sure that we are combating childhood obesity,” Hoeven said. “It hits that balance.”

The additional flexibility for meals should also ease the added expense cafeterias face in changing their menus, he said.

When Congress reauthorized child nutrition programs in 2010, lawmakers included the first increase in per meal reimbursements since 1973. However, the additional 6 cents per meal for school cafeterias that met new nutrition standards was less than needed to fully cover costs for changing meals. The Agriculture Department estimates that school meal operators face a total $75 million a year in additional costs.

The law also set limits on the number of calories schools should offer students, as well as on grains and proteins. The goal was to get cafeterias to reduce the amount of refined grains served and to use more whole grains. The cap on protein was meant to encourage students to get their protein not only from meat but also from other sources such as dairy, seafood and nuts.

The lawmakers say they got involved in response to complaints from students that the new menus left some students feeling hungry and did not meet the needs of student athletes. The bill would keep the calorie limits placed on food servings.

So far advocates and public health groups do not see the Hoeven-Pryor bill (S 427) as an unraveling of nutrition standards that encourage more fresh fruits and vegetables and that limit fat, sugar, sodium and calories in children’s school meals. The victory for them was years in the making, culminating in the 111th Congress with a five-year reauthorization bill (PL 111-296).

Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the legislation appears to be benign although the grains and protein limits sparked backlash from some on Capitol HiIl.

The School Nutrition Association, which counts school lunch and breakfast managers and their suppliers as members, backs the legislation. The weekly limits tied the hands of providers who wanted to offer students choices in their meals, association president Sandra Ford said. For example, she said, a sandwich alternative with two slices of whole grain bread could push meals over the weekly maximum for grains. A salad made with grilled chicken and low-fat cheese exceeded weekly protein limits, while soups made from scratch could cross the line because of small amounts of chicken or noodles, she said.

“These menu choices are commonly offered in schools as a daily alternative to the nutritious hot entree choices of the day. Students feel comfortable knowing that if they did not like the hot entree they could choose from a deli sandwich, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a chef’s salad,” Ford said.

Meeting the standard meant that Ford’s school could offer sandwiches only four days out of five, a change that left a first-grader in tears, she said, because he could not have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Wootan said an adjustment period for school meal providers and students is to be expected, but she said it was “a complicated rule that turned out to be more of a problem for schools than USDA anticipated,” so the Agriculture Department responded with the waiver.

“This was a place where they could offer schools flexibility, and it was not harmful to kids, and they did it,” Wootan said.

Public health groups and nutrition advocates might be more concerned if the bill targeted calorie caps, she added.

“The amount of calories in school lunches should be determined by nutrition experts and not on the Hill for political reasons,” she said.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who introduced legislation last year to repeal all new school meal nutrition standards, questions the need for calorie limits. King, whose state is a top pork-producing state, said it all smacked of an effort to move meat off the plate.

“You have a cap written into it on meat that can be supplemented by other forms of protein. So I would define that as rationing meat. What would the rationale be?” King recently asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at a House Agriculture Committee hearing on an unrelated topic.

“It’s giving school districts choices in terms of their protein choices and making sure that they understand the importance of a balanced plate and a balanced meal,” Vilsack responded.

Public health groups and nutrition advocates are more worried about the possibility that lawmakers might try to undo limits on sodium, fats, sugar and calories and dial back a greater emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables in school lunch and breakfasts. These areas are the foundation for building healthier diets for kids, they argue. The Agriculture Department is taking public comments on proposed standards for so-called competitive foods — items sold in vending machines and on a la carte lines — through April 9.

The House Education and the Workforce Committee is more wary of the changes. The panel, which has jurisdiction over child nutrition programs in the House, said the broader changes opened the door to micromanagement. In its budget views and estimate letter, the education panel urged the Budget Committee to consider ways to “reverse the costly nature of the new regulations.”

Laurie Whitsel, policy research director for the American Heart Association, said while the substance of the Senate bill is not worrisome, she is a little uneasy about lawmakers trying to resolve a nutrition dispute between school meal providers and the Agriculture Department.

“I think it sets a bad precedent for Congress to get involved in the implementation of legislation. I think that’s really USDA’s area. I think it’s really best left to the agency,” Whitsel said. “We have to be careful to make sure politics aren’t influencing the implementation and that it’s really for the agency to take into account the feedback that it is getting and follow through on that.”

In the 112th Congress, lawmakers interceded on two points of contention on school meals. The Agriculture Department proposed limiting servings of potatoes, corn and peas because of their starch or carbohydrate levels and to no longer count tomato sauce, often served on pizza, as a vegetable. Policy riders in appropriations bills kept the status quo.

Given past friction over nutrition standards, Pryor said he hesitated about joining Hoeven in co-sponsoring the bill.

“I was a little concerned right when we started. I want a healthy nutritious meal for our kids at school. I was afraid that maybe some people were saying, ‘Let’s water that down, let’s not do that,’” Pryor said earlier this month.

But he said that after talking with Arkansas school district officials and meal operators he became convinced that the Agriculture Department had taken a “one-size-fits-all” approach that required greater flexibility.

Pryor said his bill strikes a balance between allowing school meal providers more options and preserving the overall goal of better nutrition included in the 2010 law, which was written by his former Arkansas colleague, Blanche Lincoln, when she was Agriculture chairwoman.

“We do need the flexibility,” Pryor said.

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