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Full Waivers From School Meal Standards Not Included in Senate Proposal

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The Senate Appropriations Committee approved legislative language related to student nutrition standards Thursday that offers less wiggle room for schools than language approved by a House panel earlier this week.

The move is the latest in a battle over the school meal standards created under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a battle that has heated up this week. Groups like the School Nutrition Association have argued that compliance with the standards is difficult and costly for districts. Groups committed to battling childhood obesity trends say issues with the rules can be handled through the regulatory process, not through congressional intervention.

The Senate panel's amendment to its agriculture spending bill—which was proposed by Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin—would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to:

  • Stop a ratcheting up of sodium restrictions pending further scientific research
  • Require Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to evaluate products available for school food providers to comply with heightened whole-grain requirements and to suggest alternatives when product availability is found to be lacking
  • Require Vilsack to report back within 90 days after the bill's passage with a plan to provide training and technical assistance to schools to reduce plate waste, comply with nutrition requirements, and maintain participation in the National School Lunch Program

You can read the full amendment here. The Senate panel's language follows a decision by the USDA this week to allow some schools flexibility in meeting stepped-up whole grain requirements set to go into effect July 1.

Also earlier this week, a House of Representatives panel included language in its agriculture spending bill that would require the USDA to grant schools a waiver from some strengthened school nutrition standards for the 2014-15 school year if they can demonstrate that compliance created an economic hardship.

The House language would require waivers for districts that can demonstrate "a net loss from operating a food service program for a period of at least six months that begins on or after July 1, 2013."

Harkin said Thursday he thinks the USDA should evaluate the difficulty of compliance and assist districts that are struggling, rather than an all-or-nothing approach of allowing complete opt-outs from the nutrition standards.

"To produce a blanket waiver and to back off entirely would be unacceptable," he said.

Now we wait to see if there's a compromise between the two chambers' approaches in a conference committee.

Update: "Providing a waiver and gutting the program is not in the best interest of America's children," Vilsack said in a conference call with reporters organized by the USDA. He highlighted USDA efforts to assist schools with compliance with the new nutrition standards—including technical assistance and grants for kitchen equipment. Vilsack spoke alongside several former military leaders involved in Mission: Readiness, an organization that says childhood weight issues often grow into adult obesity and health problems that can disqualify people from enlisting in the military.

"With time and with patience this is working," Vilsack said, "and it really doesn't need an overhaul or a fix that some in congress are articulating a need for."

Meanwhile, the School Nutrition Association, which has advocated for the waiver approach, released a "Myth vs. Fact" sheet to address "misleading information about the challenges schools have faced under the new regulations."

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