Health groups fear bill could lead to return of pizza, fries in schools

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Health advocates are blasting provisions in federal funding legislation that are seen as dialing back school nutrition standards, even as the White House seeks to downplay the riders as “minor adjustments” to the first lady’s signature policy.

The bill known as “cromnibus,” contains language that would allow states to exempt struggling districts from having to offer all whole grain products and eases requirements for schools to reduce sodium levels.

Critics who lobbied against more restrictive nutrition rules hailed the language as a win.

The American Heart Association, meanwhile, worries the changes will open the door for more legislation that will allow schools to revert back to serving pizza and French fries every day for lunch.

“I don’t think we quite know the extent of what these provisions will do and how to move forward with them,” AHA’s Government Relations Manager Kristy Anderson said. “This is the tip of the iceberg for them to keep chipping away and rescind a popular law that works.”

The White House, which formally came out Thursday in support of the $1.1 trillion package, is denying that the riders will have any major impact on Michelle Obama’s prized standards, which are in line with her efforts to combat childhood obesity.

“In light of the efforts to roll back school nutrition standards, we consider the minor adjustments to the standards a real win for kids and parents,” Sam Kass, the executive director of the first lady’s “Let’s Move!” initiative said in a statement.

“The Administration will continue to support districts across the country in every way we can to achieve the goal of providing good nutritious food for students,” added Kass, who is stepping down as President Obama’s personal chef at the end of the month.

The AHA is also upset about language in the bill that will keep schools from being able to use federal funds to implement the second round of sodium reductions in 2017 “until the latest scientific research establishes the reduction is beneficial for children.”

Sodium levels in school lunches now under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act must be less than 1,230 miligrams in elementary schools, 1,360 mg in middle schools and 1,420 mg in high schools. By 2017, those numbers were expected to drop to 935 mg, 1,035 mg and 1,080 mg respectively.

“We know that reducing sodium and increasing fruits and vegetables is critical for the cardio vascular health of children across the U.S.,” said Laurie Whitsel, AHA’s director of policy research.

“We’re seeing high blood pressure more and more in young children and that’s related to the obesity epidemic and high levels of sodium in the food supply.”

Whitsel admits the current sodium levels aren’t unsafe. They just aren’t the optimal levels the dietary Guidelines of America recommend.

Still, Jessica Donze Black, a child nutrition expert at the Pew Charitable Trusts, believes that U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, due out next year, will provide sufficient data to trigger the more stringent standards.

As for whole grains, Cromnibus allows schools struggling financially to revert back to 2012 standards, which require only 50 percent of all grains used in meals to be whole grains rather than the new 100 percent standard, which kicks in this year.

The School Nutrition Association, a vocal critic of the tougher regulations, is calling this new flexibility a win for its members.

“We strongly support the legislation and see it as a critical first step in addressing unintended consequences that have resulted from some of the regulations,” SNA Spokeswoman Diane Preatt-Heavner.

The national nonprofit said it couldn’t wait until next year’s reauthorization of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to lobby for more relaxed rules. The group instead hired Barnes & Thornburg LLP to push through riders in the appropriations bill.

Preatt-Heavner said SNA members are having a hard time financially keeping up with the current standards that require everything from croutons to the breading on chicken patties to be whole grain rich.

“In surveying our members, only 18 percent expect their program to break even by end of the 2014-2015 school year, over 50 percent expect costs to exceed revenue and the remaining are unsure,” she said.

“And school meal programs are not permitted to carry losses over from one year to the next, so when school meal programs can’t break even, the school district is required to pick up the tab.”

The bill, however, does include $25 million for school food equipment again this year to help districts purchase “sectionizers” and slicers to help cut more fruits and vegetables.

Though Donze Black believes the nutrition standards shouldn’t be changed through the appropriations process, she said there is a silver lining: it could have been worse.

“What came out at the end is less damaging than what was originally proposed,” she said. “We appreciate that they didn’t include waivers that would have been a full-scale rollback.”

This story was updated at 10:08 a.m. to correct Donze Black’s title. She works at Pew Charitable Trusts. 

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