U.S. Senators Mark Pryor (D-AR) and John Hoeven (R-ND) today announced that the School Nutrition Association (SNA) has endorsed the Sensible School Lunch Act, their bipartisan bill that provides school districts with greater flexibility in implementing new rules for the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its final rule for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which requires new standards for school meals. The final rule attempted to curb obesity among youth by strictly limiting calories, protein and grains for all students without any flexibility to meet the needs of athletes or others whose dietary needs do not fit the guidelines. According to the USDA, complying with the rule exceeded federal funding by at least a projected $75 million a year, placing greater strain on school budgets.
The new regulation produced a wave of concern by parents, students and administrators reacting to the expense of the program, and the lack of flexibility for those students who have nutritional needs that exceed the strict calorie, protein and grains restrictions.
While the USDA should be commended for attempting to implement a science-based approach to its nutrition recommendations, the lack of any flexibility for those students with special nutritional needs poses a problem. For example, the USDA categorizes students into broad grade brackets for the purpose of nutritional needs, but according to their strict rule, a 13-year-old eighth grader may eat no more protein than a five-year-old kindergartener, with no exceptions, and a 13 year old may eat only one more ounce of grain as a kindergartner. Similarly, an active 18 year-old high school senior playing football would get no more proteins and grains than an inactive 14-year-old ninth grader.
In December 2012, after hearing from Pryor and Hoeven, the USDA retracted its strict limits on proteins and grains to give schools more flexibility, while keeping in place the upper cap on total calories. This improvement to the regulation has been received with resounding support by school administrators, school food service directors, parents and students. Unfortunately, the USDA granted this relief only through spring 2013, and extended it recently through the spring of 2014.
Senators Pryor, Hoeven, and the School Nutrition Association, however, believe that a permanent solution for schools is needed, instead of a piecemeal, year-by-year approach. The Hoeven-Pryor bill would make USDA's temporary modification to the school meals regulation permanent by lifting the cap on proteins and grains, so students and schools have more flexibility to serve a range of students as they comply with the new nutrition standards.
Specifically, the senators' legislation would allow more flexible portions of proteins and grains in the federal school meals program, while leaving in place the rest of the regulation, including the total calorie cap and its emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and non-fat dairy selections. Professional school nutritionists and food preparers welcome the bill because it gives them flexibility to meet the needs of all students, rather than applying a one-size-fits-all rule. At the same time, the total calorie cap remains in place to ensure healthy meals in proportion, and allowable fruits are increased as compared to before, and vegetable servings are unlimited.
"I'm pleased the USDA has given school districts greater flexibility in implementing new nutritional standards, but I want the changes to be permanent," Pryor said. "That's why I've teamed up with Senator Hoeven on this bipartisan bill that will give school food authorities the permanent flexibility they need to ensure Arkansas students receive nutritious, well-balanced meals at school."
"We welcome the support of the School Nutrition Association, the professionals in the field who actually have to implement the federal rules every day," Hoeven said. "Our new legislation will give food preparers at our schools the flexibility to provide nutritious, satisfying meals for growing youngsters, and at the same time, address such important issues as childhood obesity and poor nutrition. This bill just applies common sense to the rules and makes sure that they're both effective and reasonable."
"The weekly limits on grains and proteins served with school meals had the unintended consequence of restricting healthy menu items like daily sandwich choices and salads topped with chicken and low-fat cheese," said Sandra Ford, SNS, School Nutrition Association President and Director, Food and Nutrition, Manatee County School District, FL. "Under the bipartisan Sensible School Lunch Act, school meals would continue to meet calorie limits and include plenty of fruits and vegetables, but cafeterias will have flexibility to plan menus that meet student tastes and nutrition standards."