School lunch flexibility sought

School lunch flexibility sought

House seeks greater flexibility in final implementation of new standards for school lunch program.

PROVIDING children with healthier food options is a main goal of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, but after its partial implementation, school food authorities "have experienced soaring costs, increased administrative burdens and unintended regulatory consequences that have negatively impacted participation rates and the long-term sustainability of school nutrition programs," according to a bipartisan group of House legislators.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will soon move into the second phase of implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which creates even stricter standards for school lunch programs.

School nutrition professionals and administrators have raised concerns about the increased compliance costs for the "Target 2" standards, which require lower sodium levels (Table).

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, 43 members of the House signed a letter asking for changes USDA can implement now to decrease the burden on local schools.

A Governmental Accountability Office report released in February revealed that participation in the National School Lunch Program declined by 1.2 million students (3.7%) from the 2010-11 to 2012-13 school years. This is seen as a reversal from previous trends as, prior to the 2010-11 school year, participation in the program had been increasing steadily for many years.

The report also found that schools are still experiencing significant problems with plate waste, meal planning and managing their budgets. In addition, according to the School Nutrition Assn.'s (SNA) 2013 "Back to School Trends" report, 47% of school meal programs reported that overall revenues declined in the 2012-13 school year.

SNA advocates suspending implementation of the Target 2 sodium standards pending the availability of scientific research that supports a reduction in daily sodium intake for children.

"Naturally occurring sodium present in milk, meats and other foods makes the later sodium requirements extremely difficult to achieve," SNA said. "Popular and healthy choices such as low-fat, whole-grain cheese pizza, macaroni and cheese and deli sandwiches could be stripped from school menus if manufacturers are unable to develop cheese that meets these extreme standards."

Earlier this year, USDA provided permanent relief to schools for meat and grain serving restrictions, which the lawmakers praised. Their letter noted that USDA could enact additional flexibility to lighten the impact of the new regulations.

In addition to suspending the Target 2 sodium requirements, the members also asked that USDA keep the whole-grain requirement at 50% and allow any food item permitted to be served as part of a reimbursable meal to be sold at any time as a "competitive" food.

Last December, Rep. Kristi Noem (R., S.D.) introduced the Reducing Federal Mandates on School Lunch Act, which was endorsed by the National School Boards Assn., School Superintendents Assn. and Council of the Great City Schools. The legislation would make USDA's easing of the meat and grain requirements permanent through a legislative fix, giving schools more flexibility in serving meats and grains while still staying within calorie maximums. It would also give administrators flexibility on some of the rules that have increased costs for school districts.

The bipartisan budget agreement included report language based on the act by directing USDA to establish a waiver process for school districts that cannot operate their school meal program without incurring increased costs due to the new regulations.

"We understand that lawyers at USDA do not believe the agency has the authority to issue these waivers," the letter noted. "However, we encourage you to work with Congress to issue these needed delays until schools can implement these new regulations without incurring additional costs."

 

Sodium reduction target timeline

 

Target 1

Target 2

Final target

 

(July 1, 2014)

(July 1, 2017)

(July 1, 2022)

National School Breakfast Program

Grades K-5

<540

<485

<430

Grades 6-8

<600

<535

<470

Grades 9-12

<640

<570

<500

National School Lunch Program

Grades K-5

<1,230

<935

<640

Grades 6-8

<1,360

<1,035

<710

Grades 9-12

<1,420

<1,080

<740

 

Volume:86 Issue:20

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