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School Waivers From New Nutrition Standards Could Become Bridge to 2015

New language offered by the House Appropriations Committee would allow schools than can demonstrate economic hardship to obtain a temporary waiver from new nutrition standards for the upcoming 2014-15 school year. In 2015, the standards might undergo revisions.

Language released Monday by the committee said the waiver language was included at the request of local schools represented by the School Nutrition Association (SNA). According to USDA, however, the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act specifically forbids the agency from granting waivers from the new nutrition standards.

Congress is using budget language in an attempt to persuade USDA to grant waivers for the next school year based on economic hardship being created by changes in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

Waivers are not universally popular.

“We are disappointed that the House Agriculture appropriations bill includes a provision that would weaken national nutrition standards for foods served in schools,” says Jessica Donze Black, a nutrition expert with the Pew Charitable Trusts. “While we commend the subcommittee for including grants to fund school equipment needed to serve healthy meals, it is unfortunate that the House would consider letting schools opt out of efforts to improve the health of children served through these programs.

“Promoting the health of the nation’s children must remain the top priority of the National School Lunch Program, just as it is for the vast majority of voters, who support strengthening nutrition standards in schools,” Black added. “We know that strong school nutrition standards are an effective strategy to prevent childhood obesity and the lifelong health problems it can create. We urge the House Appropriations Committee to drop this provision from the bill so that we may continue the progress that so many schools have made.”

SNA, however, said the bill contains language that simply allows schools with six months or more of operating losses to apply for a one-year waiver from compliance with costly meal pattern requirements.

“School Nutrition Association strongly supports establishing a one-year waiver process to provide temporary relief to school meal programs struggling to manage the cost of meeting school meal standards,” SNA President Leah Schmidt said.

“School nutrition professionals have been on the front lines working to improve school menus, offer a wider variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and encouraging students to make healthier choices in the cafeteria. However, since these standards took effect, more than one million fewer students choose school lunch each day, reducing revenue for school meal programs already struggling to manage the increased cost of preparing meals under the new standards,” she added.

Schmidt said a temporary waiver program would prevent more schools from dropping out of the National School Lunch Program entirely before Congress has the opportunity to review the standards as part of its reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act in 2015.

A recent government report showed that one million children and about 500 schools have dropped out of the NSLP since the 2010 law took effect. Most recently, an Illinois school district that took in almost $1 million a year from the NSLP decided to drop out over the new standards.

Pew, which lobbied for the 2010 changes, claims that 90 percent of the schools are meeting USDA’s updated nutrition standards for school lunches. U.S. Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, counters that by saying: “Being in compliance doesn’t necessarily mean everything is going well.”

Kline told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune the new standards most associated with First Lady Michelle Obama are a “very, very big overreach of the federal government.”

Food waste, student flight, and calorie restrictions are often mentioned as problems with the new standards. The need to turn back childhood obesity was the main reason the nutritional changes were made with ample bipartisan support in 2010.

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