Senate Grapples With Changes to School Food Regulations


Congressional Republicans and First Lady Michelle Obama continue to disagree on the foods served to US schoolchildren. A revision of the healthier meal standards established over the last few years and supported as a pet project of the first lady's has been agreed upon by a bipartisan Senate agreement, writes Mary Clare Jalonick for the Associated Press.

The Senate eased the requirements on whole grains and put off a deadline to decrease sodium levels in school lunch meals. While this legislation may please some schools that have criticized the regulations, which they have called oppressive, supporters hope the essence of the act remains the same. The new bill released by the Senate Agriculture Committee has eliminated the 2014 House Republican plan that would have allowed some schools to opt out of the guidelines altogether. A vote on the bill is scheduled for Wednesday.

Finally, this measure may end the two years of controversy between public school lunch directors, congressional Republicans, and the first lady, who initiated the program as part of her campaign against childhood obesity.

But New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is also a GOP presidential candidate, has been open about his disapproval of the first lady's involvement in the school lunch debate. He says this is another example of the Obamas thinking they have better answers for everything than American private citizens do.

If schools accept federal reimbursements for free and reduced-price meals for low-income students, they are required to follow the nutrition rules prescribed by the government. The new standards, however, are stricter and, according to some schools, unfeasible.

Those negotiating the bill have agreed that the stringent sodium standards would be delayed past the original deadline of 2017 by two years. Health groups are applauding the compromise because the move has been delayed but not eliminated. The School Nutrition Association (SNA), the National School Boards Association, and the School Superintendents Association have asked that sodium levels remain the same as they are currently.

They explained that the rules have caused a reduction in school meal sales since they went into effect in 2010, reports The Hill's Lydia Wheeler. Students have been throwing meals away more frequently, they added.

The five-year bill would make significant changes to the first lady's contentious healthy school meals measure. The problem, says Eric Owens of The Daily Caller, is that American kids do not like whole grain pasta, and Southwestern children do not appreciate whole grain tortillas. The revised bill must find a way to stop the relentless waste that results from students tossing their fruits and vegetables in the trash can.

"In the absence of increased funding, this agreement eases operational challenges and provides school meal programs critical flexibility to help them plan healthy school meals that appeal to students," School Nutrition Association president Jean Ronnei said, according to the Associated Press.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said:

"The standards we've agreed on make sure that our schools can serve healthy and nutritious meals that students like, while also making their budgets. This is all about providing both good nutrition and flexibility."

An Agweek Wire Report explains that a la carte Smart Snacks in School regulations, begun in 2014, limited the items sold in cafeteria a la carte lines. This meant that foods like low-fat, whole grain pizza and hummus were prohibited. Students were given fewer healthy choices in cafeterias and schools took in less revenue, making it difficult to balance the higher costs of the new regulations. The new agreement will appoint a group to work out these kinks and come up with allowable nutritious food exemptions for a la carte lines.

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