School Foodservice Standards Get Small Tweak, House Looks For Broader Changes

The fight over salad bars v. fried mozzarella sticks continues. It was just a few years ago that the U.S. Department of Agriculture carved out healthy lunch standards after Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The Act set rules on fat, calorie, sugar and sodium limits on foods in the lunch line and beyond.

Championed by first lady Michelle Obama, the new standards have been phased in over the last two school years. But the law hasn’t met with universal acclaim. While many schools have had success putting the rules in place, others have said they are too restrictive and costly. Schools pushing for changes say limits on sodium and requirements for whole grains have proven particularly difficult, and complain that kids are throwing the required fruits and vegetables in the trash.

The School Nutrition Association, which represents school-nutrition directors and the companies that sell food to schools, says that almost half of school meal programs reported declines in revenue in the 2012-13 school year and 90% said food costs were up.

The SNA, which has been fighting to ease the standards, received a small victory last week when the USDA announced that school meal programs that “demonstrate significant challenges in serving whole grain rich pastas can now continue serving traditional enriched pasta for up to two more years.”

Now House Republicans are proposing to let some schools opt out of healthier school lunch and breakfast programs if they are losing money.

A GOP spending bill for agriculture and food programs released last week would allow schools to apply for waivers if they have a net loss on school food programs for six months. The House Appropriations Committee said in a release that the waiver language is in response to requests from schools.

The SNA, which says that schools need more room to make their own decisions, supports the waiver as a temporary solution until Congress considers renewal of a school foods law that expires next year.

Nutrition advocates and other supporters of the rules say the House proposal is overly broad. Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said the House Republicans are using a “hacksaw rather than a scalpel” to try and solve problems some schools are having and urged time be given to adjust to the new guidelines.

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