North Dakota senator introduces school meals flexibility act | TSLN.com

North Dakota senator introduces school meals flexibility act

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., today introduced the Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act, legislation that would provide permanent flexibility to school districts in complying with the Agriculture Department's school meals rules on sodium and whole grains.

The 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act requires schools to serve healthier meals. First Lady Michelle Obama has championed the healthier meal standards, but they have been controversial, particularly in rural areas.

Hoeven announced the bill in a speech to the School Nutrition Association, which represents the school food service directors and the companies that make food for the schools. SNA has balked at a number of the requirements in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, including the sodium and whole-grains requirements.

SNA endorsed the bill, although Hoeven did not mention another SNA proposal to end the requirement that students take a half-cup of fruits or vegetables at each meal.

"Providing our students with healthy, nutritious and delicious meals is important," Hoeven said in a news release. "The Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act ensures our schools are providing kids with good, nutritious meals but provides the flexibility they need to serve meals that are not only well-balanced but also appealing to students."

In the news release, Hoeven noted that in July 2012, USDA began requiring that at least half of all grains offered with school meals be whole-grain rich, and that in July 2014 it required that all grains be whole-grain rich.

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"The Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act restores the requirement back to 50 percent of total grains to ensure continued access to a wide variety of grain products," Hoeven said. "This will enable schools to serve items like biscuits, tortillas and pasta that students will eat."

Hoeven noted that he worked to include a provision in the fiscal year 2015 omnibus appropriations that allows schools that establish a hardship from the whole-grain food requirement to serve meals with 50 percent whole-grain rich foods. This legislation would provide permanent flexibility for all schools, he said.

The sodium provision would prevent the Agriculture Department from requiring further sodium reductions in school meals below the current Target 1 level, which became effective in July 2014.

"If additional sodium reductions are implemented, schools would have a difficult time meeting targets when serving healthy foods with naturally occurring sodium, including milk, cheese and meat," Hoeven said. "For example, schools would be unable to serve healthy choices like low-fat, whole grain cheese pizza, many Asian dishes and deli sandwiches."

"The School Nutrition Association strongly supports the Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act," said SNA President Julia Bauscher.

"School nutrition professionals are committed to serving healthy meals, but minor adjustments to the most extreme restrictions under the new rules will help struggling schools bring students back to the cafeteria," Bauscher said.

"Too many students have swapped school lunch for unhealthy alternatives, which defeats the goal of the standards and reduces revenue to invest in healthy, appealing menus. Under Sen. Hoeven's bill, all schools will continue to serve nutritious meals that meet current sodium reductions and offer a wide variety of whole grains."

Hoeven said he worked in the last Congress to provide schools with greater flexibility to meet the nutritional needs of all students, after hearing from North Dakota students who were left feeling hungry due to new, strict school nutrition standards enacted at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year.

"The rule attempted to curb obesity by strictly limiting calories, protein and grains for all students without any flexibility to meet the needs of athletes or others whose dietary needs do not fit the guidelines," he said.

USDA officials have said, however, that the rules do not prevent the schools from serving additional food to athletes outside the regular school meals.

Hoeven noted that after he led a bipartisan group of lawmakers to send USDA a letter about the problems in December 2012, USDA temporarily lifted its strict limit on grains and starches as well as protein to give schools more flexibility. The upper cap on total calories remains in place; however, the modification was provided only through the 2013-2014 school year.

Hoeven said that after he wrote legislation to making lifting the limits on grains and starches permanent, the USDA used administrative powers to make that change permanent.

SNA has also asked Congress to provide more money for the healthier, more expensive meals.

"USDA data shows the cost of meeting new requirements far exceeds the funding Congress has provided," Bauscher said. "Meanwhile, many frustrated students have swapped school lunch for unhealthy alternatives, which defeats the goal of the standards and reduces revenue to invest in healthy, appealing menus.

"Congress must act to provide school meal programs the necessary funding and flexibility to prepare meals that will bring students back to the cafeteria."

–The Hagstrom Report