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School Food Directors Want to Slow, Adjust School Meal Rules

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Washington

During this year's annual chat with members of Congress, representatives of school cafeteria directors all over the country will ask that the federal government put off new rules about what school breakfasts should look like, among other requests.

As they continue to wrestle with major changes to school lunches, which took effect this school year, it only makes sense to delay changes to breakfast, the School Nutrition Association said Monday. The changes to school lunches involve adding more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and limiting calories, fat, and salt. The changes are similar at breakfast and have required entirely new menus and options in many school districts.

"You can't do it all simultaneously," said Marshall Matz, the group's Washington counsel. "There are districts where food-service staff and bus drivers are the same" people. "We're not trying to say breakfast is less important. We're doing lunch first."

Ironically, the SNA's request happens to coincide with National School Breakfast Week.

As for those lunch rules, the 55,000-member organization grapples wants some changes, too, and they already have traction on some of them. Current rules created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture limit the servings of grains and protein served at lunch over the course of a week, and there is also a cap on how many calories students can be served.

The calorie limits will keep meals from having too much bread or protein, said Cheryl Isberner, senior marketing manager for the dairy foods company Land O'Lakes. She acknowledged that her wish for the protein limits to disappear may sound self-serving, considering she works for a company that supplies protein-rich items to schools. But the limits do have practical implications, she said. For example, the caps keep schools from serving sandwiches every day. Or, they could be stuck adding items like potato chips to meals to boost calories instead of an item that contains protein or grains. "That doesn't make a lot of nutritional sense."

This SNA wish has already been granted, to an extent.The USDA already lifted the limits through the end of the 2013-14 school year, and several senators have drafted the Sensible School Lunch Act to address the change permanently.

As much tinkering as has gone on with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, perhaps it's worth wondering whether any bill attempting to adjust the legislation will morph into a broader attempt to undo the law. It was popular when it passed with bipartisan support in 2010, but as regulations have trickled out that put the law's words into action, criticism has grown.

The School Nutrition Association also is asking, again, that the USDA rule on how to handle situations when families don't pay for meals, accumulating debt and sometimes being turned away from eating.

"We are under no obligation to feed children who do not pay," said Margie Bowers, the child nutrition director in the 15,000-student Rogers, Ark., school district, but it isn't so easy to turn them away. "You see those babies come through your line every day."

And school food managers said they want to undo a requirement that they raise lunch prices for students who pay full price if they aren't operating with any debt. The increases may turn away students who don't qualify for meal subsidies and stigmatize lunch as being for poor children, said Julia Bauscher, the director of nutrition services in Kentucky's Jefferson County schools.

While the requirement has helped some cash-strapped districts, especially in places where school boards haven't allowed price increases, Bauscher said it shouldn't be required across the board.

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