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Agriculture Department Expands School Food Training, Mentoring Program

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture will expand a school nutrition training and mentoring pilot it launched this year into a nationwide program, the agency announced Monday.

The Team Up for School Nutrition Success Initiative provides "tailored technical assistance" and peer-to-peer mentoring to schools as they continue to implement heightened nutrition standards that were created as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

With assistance from the National Food Service Management Institute at the University of Mississippi, the USDA began piloting the program in eight southeastern states starting in November 2014.The agency expects the nationwide roll out, which will be done region-by-region, to be complete by September and to involve over 700 schools in its first year, Kevin Concannon, undersecretary of food, nutrition, and consumer services, said in a conference call with reporters.

Training and technical assistance have been one of the agency's weapons in the political battle over the standards. Some lawmakers and school nutrition representatives see the rules as too difficult to implement, while others see them as necessary to slow child obesity rates. The USDA has defended the rules and insisted that technical assistance and training are all that is necessary to overcome concerns about issues like discarded food and adjustment to new calorie and sodium restrictions.

Lawmakers, encouraged by the School Nutrition Association's positions, have pursued a series of efforts to weaken or eliminate the rules. Most recently, Sen. Jon Hoeven, R-North Dakota, introduced legislation that would make permanent changes to sodium and whole-grain requirements that were included in a congressional budget deal passed in December (the so-called "cromnibus.") Including the changes in separate legislation would make them more permanent, supporters say.

School nutrition directors who participated in the training program's pilot said it helped them address challenges with discarded food, menu planning, procurement, making meals more palatable to students, and finding ways to make dishes tasty with less salt.

"We understand that there are still challenges associated with change," Concannon said.

Interested schools should contact their state nutrition authority for information on participating, USDA officials said.

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