Senate panel adopts deal on school lunches

 

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday adopted a bipartisan compromise to address the problem of too many school kids rejecting healthy meals mandated by the Obama administration.

More than a million kids dropped out of the National School Lunch Program after new healthy foods were mandated in 2012, and the exodus has put financial pressure on some school districts.

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The House Appropriations Committee earlier this week approved language that would force the Agriculture Department to waive the nutrition requirements for money-losing school lunch programs. 

The Senate is taking a compromise approach after negotiations led by Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.). 

The language, now part of the Senate version of the USDA funding bill for 2015, relaxes some of the requirements on cash-strapped school lunch programs.

It would prevent new, more stringent sodium levels from being implemented pending further research. The language would also require the USDA to identify products that schools can use in lieu of whole grain pastas and breads if 100 percent whole grain products cannot be purchased.

Finally, it would force the USDA to report to Congress on its plan to offer technical assistance to help schools struggling to meet the new requirements.

The compromise was adopted after Hoeven dropped his attempt to introduce a stronger waiver for schools. He said he would work to get that into report language rather than the bill’s text.

Proponents of the House waiver say that it must be in the bill text in order to be legally binding for the USDA, which ignored waiver language in the report language attached to this year’s 2014 funding bill.

Pryor argued that the final school lunch approach will come out of a House-Senate conference committee and would likely be more flexibile for schools given the House approach. 

The School Nutrition Association, which has been leading the lobby fight for a waiver from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act rules, said it supports the Senate compromise.

“While we would have liked to see the committee go further in addressing the challenges that school nutrition professionals face every day, we would like to thank the committee for hearing the concerns of school cafeteria staff and the students they serve," said SNA President Leah Schmidt.

This story was updated at 4:00 p.m.