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School Nutrition Association Proposes Changes to Federal School Meal Law

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The School Nutrition Association released its 2015 position paper today, which outlines its priorities for congressional reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.

That act sets the policies for the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs, which have been the subject of much debate in Washington since the U.S. Department of Agriculture racheted up nutrition regulations under the 2010 version of the law, known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

The association, which represents 55,000 school nutrition professionals around the country, has led recent efforts to allow some districts to opt out of those standards, which has made it the target of opposition from child health and anti-obesity organizations. The School Nutrition Association argues that those rules have been cumbersome and challenging for schools to implement, that they have led to declining participation in school meal programs, and that students throw away many mandated fruit and vegetable servings.

The position paper sets seven priorities, which closely mirror positions the organization has voiced in the past.

Increase the per meal reimbursement by 35 cents—The USDA currently provides an additional 6 cent reimbursement for lunches that meet nutrition requirements, but it provides no additional funds for compliant breakfasts. The organization contends that additional federal funding is necessary to meet the heightened standards.

Maintain the Target 1 sodium levelsSchool meal sodium restrictions are set to go into effect gradually, with Target II, the next phase, going into effect in 2017. A congressional budget deal passed in December froze sodium restrictions at Target 1, but including that freeze in the law itself would make the change more permanent.

Allow schools to decide whether students are required to take the fruits or vegetables they are mandated to offer under the law—Under the current rule, students are required to take a half a cup of fruit or vegetables at meals. The SNA proposes requiring schools to offer these items and giving them the authority to decide if students are required to take them.

Relax whole-grain requirementsStarting in July 2014, all grains served as part of school meals must be whole-grain-rich. SNA proposes reverting to a requirement that took effect in July 2012, which mandated that half of all grain items be whole-grain-rich. The December federal budget deal would have allowed states to exempt some schools from the requirements. In May, the USDA offered similar flexibility for schools that struggle to find whole-grain-rich pastas.

Allow all food items that are permitted to be served as part of a reimbursable meal to be sold at any time as an a la carte itemSmart Snacks in School competitive food rules that took effect in July set sodium, fat, and calorie limits for foods sold in vending machines, in school stores, and on a la carte lines. SNA proposes allowing any item that can be sold as part of a meal to be sold on the a la carte line, even if it doesn't meet those limits.

Give some schools flexibility on Paid Lunch Equity ruleThat provision set requirements for what portion of school meal programs needed to be financed with funds not derived from free or reduced-price meal reimbursements. The aim was to maintain high-quality meals and to ensure that schools weren't using those reimbursements to subsidize the cost of meals for full-pay students. As a result, most schools increased the price of their lunches. SNA says those price increases have led to declining participation in school meal programs (others agree), and it says financially healthy meal programs should be allowed to opt out of the provision.

Simplify program requirements "The overwhelming complexity of program regulations and administrative requirements is unnecessarily hindering efforts to better serve students," the position paper says.

It's almost certain that organizations that have championed the nutrition rules will disagree with these proposals. In the past, those groups have said changes that SNA labels as "flexibility" are actually efforts to weaken policies necessary to ensure the health of children, particularly low-income children who rely on school meals.

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