GOP has knives out for school lunch rules

First lady Michelle ObamaMichelle ObamaThe Trail 2016: Wikissues VIDEO: Michelle Obama hails Clinton's friendship, experience First lady joins Clinton to rally NC Dems MORE’s signature school lunch regulations are coming under fresh fire from GOP lawmakers, who view impending reauthorization legislation as their best chance yet to dial back the controversial nutrition standards.

Republicans are convening a series of hearings to highlight criticism of the regulations, a pillar of the first lady’s initiative to curb childhood obesity in the United States.

School officials say students are turning their noses up to the meals that cap calories and limit sodium.

Republicans also assail the standards as executive overreach.

“To force you to serve food that hungry kids throw out maybe tops the list of things the federal government shouldn’t be doing,” Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) said at a recent hearing.

The 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) expires on Sept. 30, giving the Republican-controlled Congress an opening to push through reauthorization legislation.

Republicans see reauthorization as an opportunity to tout the failures of the standards and demand changes that give schools — and students — more options.  

The legislation to reauthorize the law is expected to come from the Senate Agriculture, and the House Education and the Workforce committees.

The first lady, who has defended the standards against previous GOP attacks, is certain to fight any efforts to weaken them.

“The last thing that we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health,” she said in 2014, when asked about the fate of the program. “Now is not the time to roll back everything that we have worked for.”

Working in her favor is the fact that the standards imposed under the HHFKA carry the force of law and will remain in place, even if the program technically lapses.

Jim Weill, president of the Food Research & Action Center, said the September deadline creates an impetus for those on both sides of the issue to reassess the program and potentially make changes.  

“There are people on both sides that want to reauthorize the bill,” he said. “Supporters of child nutrition programs want to put in provisions to reach more kids with summer food and child care food programs, and there are people who want to not just weaken standards but cut back on eligibility.”

Republicans calling for more flexibility, like Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat RobertsPat RobertsHirshberg to Podesta: We don't really know anything about GMOs Mosul campaign Trump called 'total disaster' making gains, officials say GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election MORE (R-Kan.), are responding, at least in part, to pleas from the School Nutrition Association (SNA). 

The group, along with National School Boards Association and the School Superintendents Association, has, for instance, been lobbying Congress to revert back to previous standards. They are pushing rules requiring only 50 percent of all grains offered to be whole-grain rich, as opposed to 100 percent, as the new regulations now require.

Critics also want to leave sodium levels where they are until research proves further reductions benefit children, and to do away with the requirement that forces schools to make each student take a half cup of fruit or vegetables with every meal.

“I’m seeing more food waste than is acceptable,” said Lynn Harvey, SNA’s incoming vice president and chief of School Nutrition Services for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

“What we need are modest modifications to the rules that would enable us to provide foods that children like and will accept,” she said during a hearing of the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education last month.

Not only, critics contend, have the strict standards caused participation in the school lunch program to decline, they’ve created black markets for salt packets in cafeterias and more work for security guards, who now have to stop pizza deliveries from coming onto campuses.

Since the issuance of final nutrition standards in the school lunch and breakfast programs in 2012, compliance costs and burdens on states and school districts are estimated to cost $3.2 billion by 2016, said Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), citing figures from the Food and Nutrition Service. At the same time, he said, a Government Operations report found participation declined by 1.2 million students from between the 2010-2011 and 2012-2013 school years.

But not all schools say they’re struggling.

Donna Martin, director of the School Nutrition Program for Burke County Public Schools in Georgia, said her program has not seen any reduction in participation since implementing the new standards.

When she started offering local fresh fruits and vegetables, she said, her participation rates actually doubled.

 “It’s a long process, but we’re making tremendous strides,” she said during a recent hearing. “We’ve got to stay the course. It takes time to change those taste buds from liking high sodium to low sodium.”