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Waivers From Nutrition Standards Included in Agriculture Budget Proposal

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 The U.S. Department of Agriculture would have 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, under a bill crafted by the House of Representatives panel that oversees the school lunch program.

The language, included in spending legislation released Monday, would require waivers for districts that can demonstrate "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."

There have been rumors flying about the proposal for weeks, and nutrition groups have already staked out their positions. Groups like the School Nutrition Association argue that the new meal standards, created as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, strain schools with costly requirements and compliance issues. But organziations who advocate for the new meal standards contend that they are an effective tool in the fight against childhood obesity, and that schools' concerns about compliance can be handled through agency regulation, not congressional intervention.

Under the proposal, schools with waivers would not have to comply with 2012 meal pattern standards that require schools to "increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat fluid milk in school meals; reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat and trans fat in meals; and meet the nutrition needs of school children within their calorie requirements. "

The School Nutrition Association, which represents 55,000 school nutrition professionals across the country, supports the proposal. From a statement issued by the organization:

"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. 

 A temporary waiver would ease the burden on school meal programs, preventing more schools from dropping out of the National School Lunch Program altogether, until Congress can fully discuss these challenges as part of Child Nutrition Reauthorization 2015."

The Pew Charitable Trusts child nutrition iniative issued a statement in opposition to the proposal:

"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. 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.

Ninety percent of schools already report that they are meeting USDA's updated nutrition standards for school lunches. Turning back now would be a costly mistake."

The proposal is far from a done deal. The bill still must be passed by the House Appropriations Committee, and the full chamber, plus win approval from the U.S. Senate and President Barack Obama. 

Update: U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack opposed the proposal in a statement:
"The House bill would undermine the effort to provide kids with more nutritious food and would be a major step backwards for the health of American children, just at the time childhood obesity rates are finally starting to level off. School nutrition standards are developed by independent experts, over 90% of schools report that they are successfully implementing them, and studies show they are working to help kids be healthier. USDA has continued to show flexibility in implementing these new standards, and Congress should focus on partnering with USDA, states, schools, and parents to help our kids have access to more healthy food, not less."
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