Vilsack says Senate school lunch compromise is acceptable

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday the Agriculture Department could accept compromise Senate language on school lunch standards, even as it vehemently opposes a House spending bill provision that would grant waivers to struggling schools.

“We would obviously work with that,” Vilsack said of the Senate compromise, adding that he views it as “consistent” with the USDA efforts to help schools cope with new tougher standards. 

The Senate compromise emerged last week. It opens up the possibility of delaying or voiding sodium standards set for 2017, expands flexibility on whole wheat requirements and requires the USDA to report to Congress on efforts to help schools having trouble enticing students to eat the healthier meals.

The compromise was hashed out by Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa.).

“It is very consistent with the approach,” Vilsack told reporters. “It is not a waiver.” 

Obama’s Agriculture secretary held a conference call the day after first lady Michelle Obama slammed the House GOP for offering language that she said would erode the new nutrition standards her husband has put into place. 

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The administration and congressional Democrats are making a full-court press against the House language a day before it comes before the full House Appropriations Committee 

Vilsack said that a core problem with the House waiver is that it would be granted to any school lunch program that can show a financial loss.

“How you determine it is operating at a lost?” he said, noting that some school budgets bill the lunch program for indirect costs or use money to subsidize regular meals outside the subsidized National School Lunch Program.

He said he is also worried that, once embedded in the 2015 spending bill for the USDA, the provision will be difficult to dislodge.

He argued that overall school lunch programs are generating $200 million more in revenue since 2012, when the standards went into effect and that the amount of food students are throwing in the garbage is not elevated.

Later on Wednesday, the School Nutrition Association will hold a media call featuring lunch providers struggling with the standards.