LAST year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its final rule for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which required new standards for school meals, effective at the start of the current school year.
The new regulation produced a wave of concern from parents, students and administrators in reaction to the expense of the program and the lack of flexibility for students whose nutritional needs exceed the program's strict calorie, protein and grain restrictions.
After rolling out new standards, the rule continues to come under fire from Congress.
In a House Agriculture Committee hearing on the rural economy, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had several heated discussions with Republican members regarding concerns with the program's implementation and goals.
Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa), an opponent of the new school lunch standards, asked Vilsack about the reasoning behind the rule's meat rationing and challenged the calorie caps.
Vilsack responded that in light of concerns from schools, USDA is providing some degree of flexibility in how the rule is implemented.
Vilsack reminded members that the changes are about providing a better-balanced plate of "fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins." He added that tweaks to the rule have given school districts more leeway on their protein choices.
Meanwhile, Sens. John Hoeven (R., N.D.) and Mark Pryor (D., Ark.) introduced the Sensible School Lunch Act program in the Senate, which will provide school districts with greater flexibility in accommodating the differing nutritional needs of students when implementing the new rules for the National School Lunch Program.
A statement from Hoeven said complying with the original rule exceeds federal funding by at least a projected $75 million a year, according to USDA, which places a greater strain on school budgets.
In December 2012, after hearing from Hoeven, Pryor and a bipartisan group of senators, USDA retracted its strict limits on proteins and grains to give schools more flexibility while keeping in place the upper cap on total calories.
This improvement to the regulation has received resounding support from school administrators, school foodservice directors, parents and students.
Still, USDA granted this relief only through spring 2013, although it recently was extended through the spring of 2014.
However, Hoeven, Pryor and the School Nutrition Assn., which backs the legislation, believe that schools need a permanent solution instead of a piecemeal, year-by-year approach. The Hoeven-Pryor bill would make USDA's temporary modification to the school meal regulation permanent by lifting the cap on proteins and grains while still leaving in place the rest of the regulation, including the total calorie cap and its emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nonfat dairy selections.
Professional school nutritionists and food preparers support the bill because it gives them flexibility to meet the needs of all students rather than applying a one-size-fits-all rule. At the same time, the calorie cap ensures healthy meals in proportion, with more allowable fruits than before and with unlimited vegetable servings.
"The weekly limits on grains and proteins served with school meals had the unintended consequence of restricting healthy menu items like daily sandwich choices and salads topped with chicken and low-fat cheese," said Sandra Ford, president of the School Nutrition Assn. and director of food and nutrition for the Manatee County, Fla., school district. "Under the bipartisan Sensible School Lunch Act, school meals would continue to meet calorie limits and include plenty of fruits and vegetables, but cafeterias will have flexibility to plan menus that meet student tastes and nutrition standards."
Co-sponsoring the Hoeven-Pryor bill are Sens. John Thune (R., S.D.), Jerry Moran (R., Kan.), Mary Landrieu (D., La.), Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), Heidi Heitkamp (D, N.D.), Daniel Coats (R., Ind.), James Inhofe (R., Okla.) and Tim Johnson (D., S.D.).