Senate school lunch bill gives greater flexibility

Sensible School Lunch Act gives schools flexibility on meat and bread calorie limits.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its final rule for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which requires new standards for school meals, effective at the start of the current school year. Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.) and Mark Pryor (D., Ark.) introduced the bipartisan Sensible School Lunch Act program, which will provide districts with greater flexibility in accommodating the differing nutritional needs of students in implementing the new rules for the National School Lunch Program.

The new regulation produced a wave of concern by parents, students and administrators reacting to the expense of the program, and the lack of flexibility for those students who have nutritional needs that exceed the strict calorie, protein and grains restrictions. A statement from Hoeven said complying with the rule exceeded federal funding by at least a projected $75 million a year, according to the USDA, placing 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 been received with resounding support by school administrators, school food service directors, parents and students. Unfortunately, the USDA granted this relief only through spring 2013, and extended it recently through the spring of 2014.

Senators Hoeven, Pryor and the School Nutrition Association which backs the legislation, however, believe that a permanent solution for schools is needed, instead of a piecemeal, year-by-year approach. The Hoeven-Pryor bill would make USDA’s temporary modification to the school meals regulation permanent by lifting the cap on proteins and grains, so students and schools have more flexibility to serve a range of students as they comply with the new nutrition standards.

Specifically, the senators’ legislation would allow more flexible portions of proteins and grains in the federal school meals program, while leaving in place the rest of the regulation, including the total calorie cap and its emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and non-fat dairy selections.

Professional school nutritionists and food preparers welcome 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 total calorie cap remains in place to ensure healthy meals in proportion, and allowable fruits are increased as compared to before, and vegetable servings are unlimited.

“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, SNS, School Nutrition Association president and director, Food and Nutrition, Manatee County School District, FL. “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.”

“Growing up my mom was a school cook, I remember hearing firsthand about the challenges schools face when trying to provide well balanced meals to students,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D, N.D.). “North Dakota schools shouldn’t have to choose between adhering to grain and protein limits and producing school lunches that provide enough nutrition to sustain kids throughout the day. By removing the maximum limitations on meat and breads, we give flexibility back our schools to provide healthy, fulfilling meals to students.”

Cosponsoring the bill with Hoeven and Pryor are Sens. John Thune (R., S.D.), Jerry Moran (R-Kans.), Mary Landrieu (D., La.), Pat Roberts (R., Kans.), Heitkamp, Daniel Coats (R., Ind.), James Inhofe (R., Okla.) and Tim Johnson (D., S.D.).

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