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A School Lunch Compromise? School Nutrition Association Reveals Details

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Are we about to see a long-awaited truce in the school lunch wars? 

The Senate agriculture committee is set to mark up a bill next week that would reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, the federal law that includes guidelines for the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.

school-lunch-healthy-whole-wheat-tortillas-600.jpgThe last overhaul of the law, in 2010, authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set stricter standards for school meal programs. Those standards—which required schools to serve more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and to limit calories, fats, and salt—have been met with resistance from some who argue they are too restrictive and costly to implement. Among those groups is the School Nutrition Association, which has lobbied on behalf of its members to loosen the rules. But defenders of the standards, championed by first lady Michelle Obama, say they are necessary to curb rates of childhood obesity.

Advocacy and industry groups alike have awaited text of the committee's bill to see what kind of compromise (if any) would result from the multi-year food fight on Capitol Hill.

While I don't have any draft language to share, the School Nutrition Association posted on its website today the outlines of a compromise it says will be included in the bill. Here are the details, according to the SNA:

Salt

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.

Under the compromise, schools will have until 2019 to meet Target II restrictions, the SNA says.

Whole Grains

Cafeteria supervisors have said it's difficult to meet current rules that require all grain products be whole-grain. That's because it's difficult to find products like pastas that are whole-grain, they said. Recognizing this, the USDA has offered some flexibility on the rule.

Under the proposed compromise, only 80 percent of grain items offered would have to be whole-grain rich, the SNA says.

Fruits and Vegetables

The SNA has said some students don't eat the fresh fruits and vegetables schools are required to give them under the existing rules. This leads to an excess of "plate waste," the organization said. 

Some have pushed to change the rules to require schools to offer the items but not to make students take them. That change isn't included in the compromise, SNA says. Rather, the bill would require federal agencies to clarify that things like sharing tables—through which students can offer food they don't want to their peers—are safe. Some local health inspectors had questioned the practice, the SNA says.

Competitive Foods

Rules that went into effect in 2014 regulate, for the first time ever, the foods schools offer throughout the school day, even those that aren't served on the lunch line. The rules apply to school fundraisers, vending machines, and items served on a la carte lines. (Bonus! Try my quiz to see if you can guess which foods are allowed in school vending machines under the rules.)

Schools complained that the rules made students less likely to purchase a la carte foods, which they have long used to help balance their budgets.

The compromise will form a "working group" that will examine the restrictions and recommend permissible foods for a la carte lines, the SNA says.

What's Not in the Compromise?

An increase in reimbursements for school meals is not part of the agreement, SNA says:

"SNA had requested an increase in the federal reimbursement rate for school meals to help schools offset the higher cost of meeting new nutrition standards. When the regulations were released, USDA estimated increased food and labor costs under the new rules would amount to a 10 cent increase in the cost of preparing every lunch and 27 cent increase in the cost of preparing every breakfast. Congress provided schools an additional 6 cents for each lunch served, but no extra funding for breakfast. As a result, schools are financially struggling under the regulations, as indicated by a recent SNA survey."

Photo: Leonardo Guerra, who works for a food vendor, holds a school lunch tray featuring his company's whole wheat tortillas at the School Nutrition Association conference in Boston earlier this month. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's nutritional standards for schools, which took effect in 2012, require schools to serve more fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains and to limit calories, fat, and sodium in their federally subsidized meals.--Charles Krupa/AP


 Related reading on school lunches:

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