Thursday 24 Jul 2014

Information and opinions presented here do not always represent the views of the American Heart Association.

Proposed waiver would allow schools to withdraw from nutrition standards

Published: 2:19 pm CDT, May 29, 2014

A proposal to let some schools opt out of healthier school lunch and breakfast programs moved forward Thursday, to the disappointment of healthy eating advocates.

“Any attempt to suspend or abolish school meal requirements will undermine parents’ efforts to keep their kids healthy and put another generation of children on the highway to heart disease and stroke,” American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown said of the agriculture and food program spending bill winding its way through Congress.

The waiver was approved by the House Appropriations Committee and is part of the agriculture spending bill. It allows schools to apply for waivers if they have a net loss on school food programs for a six-month period.

The standards applied to the school lunch program set limits on fat, calorie, sugar and sodium. They were phased in during the last two school years, while additional changes will go into effect throughout the decade.

Brown said progress in providing nutritious food should not be dismissed so easily. A study cited by the United States Department of Agriculture showed children are eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch.

“They are also consuming less sugar, fat and sodium,” she said. “Less salt consumption is particularly important because more young people are developing high blood pressure – once viewed solely as an adult disease.”

The rollback to the healthy lunch programs was derided as a play by special interests to get less nutritious food back onto the menu.

“By giving special interests a seat at the school lunch table, some members of Congress are putting politics before the health of our children,” said Brown. She added that it was “even more frustrating that an amendment to reverse this food folly” was defeated.

The House Appropriations Committee said in a release that the waiver language was in response to requests from schools.

Many schools have had success implementing the rules, but others have complained about restrictions and cost.

The School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutrition directors and companies that sell food to schools, supported the changes, saying schools need more room to make their own decisions. The group reported that that almost half of school meal programs reported declines in revenue in the 2012-13 school year and 90 percent said food costs were up.

Brown said that the cries for flexibility “have and will continue to be met” by the USDA. She noted that a requirement to use whole grains that was proving particularly difficult was addressed.

“When schools informed the agency they couldn’t obtain the whole grain pastas necessary under the standards, USDA said traditional pasta could be used for two years until the food industry creates these products,” she said.

The USDA also modified whole grain and protein requirements when they proved to be too difficult to implement.

The House bill provides money for Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration programs. It would also change another nutrition program championed by the Obama administration — allowing white potatoes into the USDA’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children program. The rule blocking white potatoes angered the potato industry and members of Congress from potato-growing states.

A version of the agriculture spending bill is also in the Senate. That version does not include the school waiver language.

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