The School Nutrition Association won the latest battle over the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act. The House Appropriations Committee approved the $20.9 billion 2015 Agriculture Appropriations bill that included a waiver allowing schools to opt out of the nutrition standards mandated in 2012 for one year if they have lost money the previous six months.
Opponents, including the USDA and First Lady Michelle Obama, believe the waiver is an attempt to gut the act. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called it “ill advised” during a media call Wednesday and said the law was working in its quest to fight childhood obesity. "Now is not the time for politicians' motivation to substitute for pediatricians' expertise," he said.
The Senate last week passed a different version of the bill to fund the USDA, which did not include the waiver, but did call for more flexibility from the USDA. If there’s no extension, Congress eventually must come together for a single appropriations bill before Sept. 30, which could be either the House or Senate’s version, or some compromise of the two.
“You fix it, you don’t break it,” Vilsack said of the two versions and his preference for the Senate’s. Last week the USDA eased the requirement for whole grain pastas, one of the biggest issues the SNA has raised, but several school foodservice directors said it was too little, too late. Tortillas, a staple in the Southwest, and grits and biscuits in the South, are two other examples of products that don’t yet have viable and affordable whole grain options, they said during a media call hosted by the SNA Wednesday, 30 minutes after the USDA’s.
"We appreciate the House Appropriations Committee’s support for this waiver to give temporary needed relief to some schools across the country,” said SNA President Leah Schmidt. “This will not halt the progress in school cafeterias; it is a temporary reprieve to allow schools to catch up."
How the waiver would work remains to be seen. The bill states:
“…The Secretary of Agriculture shall establish a process by which a State shall grant a waiver from compliance with the final regulations published by the Department of Agriculture in the Federal Register on January 26, 2012 for the 2014-15 school year to any school food authority located in the State that verifies a net loss from operating a food service program for a period of at least 6 months that begins on or after July 1, 2013.”
SNA continues to push Congress for more relief, specifically on these four issues:
• Retain the current requirement that 50% of grains offered with school meals be whole grain rich rather than further increasing the requirement to 100%.
• Retain Target 1 sodium levels, and suspend implementation of further sodium levels unless and until scientific research supports such reductions for children.
• Retain requirements to offer a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but eliminate the mandate that students must take a fruit or vegetable with meals.
• Require USDA to allow any food item permitted to be served as part of a reimbursable meal to be sold at any time as a competitive food.
Schmidt and other directors insisted their intentions were not to roll back the nutritional gains, but instead take a pause to allow time to figure out how to remain financially viable since costs were rising and participation was dropping.