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Spending Bill Stops Short of Creating Full Waivers From School Nutrition Rules

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Lawmakers released details of a proposed federal budget deal Tuesday night, and members of a whole spectrum of advocacy groups quickly pored over the text in a hunt for provisions that might change the way federal agencies do business.

For close watchers of the school food fight, the gist is this: The proposed omnibus appropriations bill does not include previously discussed language that would have given some schools a year off from heightened nutrition standards, but it does allow for wiggle room on a few rules created under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

If the deal is approved by both chambers, here are the changes we could expect in school meal programs.

Whole-Grain Exemptions

States could exempt some schools from a requirement that went into effect July 1 that requires all grains in school meals to be whole-grain rich.

Such exemptions would be given to schools that "demonstrate hardship, including financial hardship, in procuring specific whole grain products which are acceptable to the students and compliant with the whole grain-rich requirements." Schools that received such exemptions would revert to a previous mandate that half of grains in meals must be whole grain-rich.

It's worth noting that the U.S. Department of Agriculture offered similar flexibility for schools related to whole grain pasta in May.

Eased Sodium Restrictions

The spending proposal would not allow the USDA to tighten up sodium requirements beyond what's known as Target I, which went into effect July 1.

School meal sodium restrictions are set to go into effect gradually, with Target II, the next phase, going into effect in 2017. But some school meal providers have said the rules make it difficult to cook palatable meals that appeal to students.

The spending bill would freeze sodium restrictions "until the latest scientific research establishes the reduction is beneficial for children."

No Full Waivers

The proposal does not include language from an earlier House agriculture appropriations bill that would have allowed some schools a full waiver from the nutrition rules, including fresh fruit and vegetable requirements, for a full year.

Supporters of that proposal said it would ease financial hardships for some schools who are struggling to adjust to the new requirements. Opponents said that it would merely create an implementation delay until critics of the rules could do away with them all together. President Obama threatened a veto of that bill.

The School Nutrition Association, which was a strong advocate for the waiver language, praised the revised flexibility that would be granted by the spending proposal Tuesday night.

"SNA greatly appreciates Congress' recognition of the challenges school nutrition professionals have faced as they work to meet new nutrition standards while ensuring students continue to eat healthy school meals," CEO Patricia Montague said in a news release.

The organization has advocated for "commonsense flexibililty," pointing to declining participation in school meal programs.

But advocates for the rules say there is an urgent need to serve healthier meals to counteract rising rates of childhood obesity and to help meet the nutritional needs of low-income students, who often rely on school meals. They cite examples of schools around the country that are successfully meeting the new regulations and creating new popular menu items at the same time.

What's in the spending bill isn't a done deal. And there are all kinds of things in the proposal that some see as bigger fish to fry (or, uh, bake after coating with whole wheat bread crumbs). Arguments about immigration, abortion, and campaign finance are all wrapped up in the trillion dollar deal, and they could be sticking points for some.

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