FOOD very well could have been flying in last week's appropriations debate regarding how the U.S. Department of Agriculture should handle requirements of the National School Lunch Program.
Implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was passed in 2010, continues to make headlines, and members from both sides of the aisle in Congress tried to find a solution in the annual spending bill.
The House version included a waiver for schools that have spent six months in the red due to implementation of the new school lunch standards. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.), chair of the House agricultural appropriations subcommittee, said the waiver isn't because he's bowing to industry pressure but because he continues to hear from school lunchroom workers on the need to provide flexibility.
Rep. Sam Farr (D., Cal.), subcommittee ranking member, argued that it's the "wrong move" to let school districts opt out of a program that's meant to encourage children to eat healthier foods.
"We don't allow students to opt out of math or science, so why are we allowing this," Farr asked.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack held a press call last week in an effort to try to debunk what he saw as mistruths circulating in the school lunch debate. Despite reports that a significant number of schools are dropping out of the program, he said less than two-tenths of 1% dropped out, and more than 90% of schools say they are successfully meeting the updated nutrition standards.
Vilsack pointed out that the new food standards have not increased food waste, citing a recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health showing that new school meal standards did not result in more food waste.
Vilsack said the House's wavier approach would be chaotic, difficult to administer and essentially would gut the opportunities provided in the new law to encourage healthier eating. He said USDA understands the need to be flexible, and it is clear that more flexibility will be needed, such as on the upcoming sodium requirements.
USDA did provide some flexibility with new requirements for whole grains. Beginning next school year, all grains and breads in school meal programs must be "whole-grain-rich," meaning they contain at least 50% whole grain meal and/or flour. USDA plans to allow gradual implementation after school districts voiced their concerns about the scarcity of acceptable approved whole-grain-rich pasta products.
In the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sens. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) and John Hoeven (R., N.D.) offered an amendment to deal with some of the main concerns in the school lunch program, which Vilsack said USDA can support.
The amendment would help schools adjust to some of the more technical requirements of the rules regarding sodium and whole grains but would preserve the requirement to serve at least one half-cup of fruits and vegetables in school meals.
Hoeven withdrew a secondary amendment that would provide schools with a hardship exemption if they could not meet the whole-grain requirement after receiving a commitment from agriculture appropriations subcommittee chairman Mark Pryor (D., Ark.) and Harkin to address this issue via report language.
Flexibility clearly is needed, but how to strike the right balance will be important as the debate moves forward.