Health groups hail compromise on school lunches

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Health groups are hailing a Senate compromise that gives schools two more years to reduce sodium levels in the meals they provide to students.

The legislation, introduced late last week by Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), requires schools to hit lower sodium levels by 2019 instead of 2017 as required by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

{mosads}Health groups have been fighting to keep the lower sodium targets, which had also been backed by first lady Michelle Obama, who was a force behind the 2010 legislation.

“We don’t feel this compromise changes a whole heck of a lot,” said Kristy Anderson, government relations manager for the American Heart Association (AHA).

“We liked the way it was originally, but it still puts kids health first, still moves nutrition standards forward and takes out the uncertainty,” she said.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), the National School Boards Association and the School Superintendents Association has asked for sodium levels to be left where they are. 

Participation rates in school meal programs, they argued, dropped after the rules went into effect in 2010. They also said more students were throwing their meals away.

Sodium levels in school lunches now must average less than 1,230 milligrams in elementary schools; 1,360 mg in middle schools; and 1,420 mg in high schools per week under current law. Under the Roberts-Stabenow bill, those numbers must drop to 935 mg, 1,035 mg and 1,080 mg by 2019.

The legislation will be marked up by the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee on Wednesday.

The Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016 also directs Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to contract with a “qualified independent entity” to review the nutrition standards for sodium by July 1, 2019.

In another change, the legislation would require that 80 percent of grains-based foods offered by schools be 51 percent whole grain.

That gives schools more flexibility, as current law requires that 100 percent of those foods meet the 51 percent whole grain standard.

Schools had argued for more flexibility on the standard.

In a statement, SNA President Jean Ronnei said the proposed Senate bill will provide critical flexibility to help schools prepare healthier meals that will appeal to students.

“SNA members greatly appreciate the leadership of Chairman Pat Roberts and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow and Senator John Hoeven (R-N.D.) for their efforts to address some of the unintended challenges resulting from school nutrition regulations,” she said. 

One concern for the AHA, Anderson said, is a provision in the bill allowing schools to apply for a hardship exemption. Schools that get the exemption would be allowed to serve frozen, dried and canned fruits and vegetables instead of fresh fruits and vegetables.

“There are no nutrition standards for frozen, dried and canned products,” Anderson said “Canned fruit is often canned in sugar juices and there are no sugar standards.”

No Kid Hungry, the campaign of the national anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength, said the legislation contains the strongest improvements to the summer meals program in more than 40 years.

The bill allows states to provide low-income families with grocery store credit during the summer months under the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program. It also allows summer meal programs to deliver their meals or allow a child to leave with a meal for later if a community is hard-to-reach due to public safety concerns or extreme weather.   

“Taken together, these provisions provide communities with the options the need to overcome the most significant barriers that prevent them from reaching kids during the summer months,” Lucy Melcher, No Kid Hungry’s associate director said in a release.  

Other groups like the National Farm to School Network were pleased to see funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm to School Grant increase from $5 million every five years with individual grants up to $100,000 to $10 million with individual grants up to $200,000.

The grants allow eligible schools to develop school gardens or partner with local farms in their community to get access to locally grown fruits and vegetables.    




Tags Child Nutrition Act Debbie Stabenow Food Government provided school meals in the United States Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act John Hoeven Michelle Obama National School Lunch Act Nutrition Pat Roberts School meal Tom Vilsack

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