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House Bill Would Gut New School Meal Standards, Undermining Children’s Health

The House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to vote tomorrow on the fiscal year 2015 agriculture spending bill, which would establish sweeping waivers from new nutrition standards for school meals.  While waiver proponents claim that they only want greater flexibility in implementing the standards, the proposal would likely eliminate the standards for many school districts and could jeopardize progress toward stabilizing child obesity.

Ironically, just a few years ago Congress directed the Agriculture Department (USDA) to strengthen school meal standards.  USDA based the changes on recommendations by the National Academy of Sciences’ highly regarded Institute of Medicine.

The lunch standards — which require more whole grains and vegetables, for example — have been in place for two years, and 93 percent of lunches served meet them.  The breakfast standards are phasing in.

In response to pressure from companies that sell foods to schools, the agriculture spending bill would require USDA to establish waivers from the breakfast and lunch standards for school districts that show a net loss in their food service programs over a six-month period.  It also would require states to grant such waivers.

And, importantly, any school district that received a waiver wouldn’t have to comply with any of the new standards.

These waivers could do away with the new standards in vast numbers of school districts across the country, jeopardizing progress in combatting obesity and improving children’s nutrition and health.  As I’ve explained, many districts could qualify for a waiver simply by no longer reporting in their school food budget the district contributions that help support the food programs.  This would create the impression of a net budgetary loss without any actual change in program finances.  Even districts already complying with the new standards could obtain a waiver.

Waiver proponents note that some individual districts have had trouble complying with specific parts of the standards, such as those related to sodium and whole grains.  But statutory waivers aren’t needed to address such concerns.  USDA provides extensive technical assistance to school districts that are having difficulty meeting the new standards, and USDA has demonstrated willingness to offer flexibility administratively.

Consistent with this approach, the agriculture spending bill that the Senate Appropriations Committee approved last week would require USDA to develop a comprehensive plan to provide enhanced training and technical assistance to help schools comply with the new standards.

Sweeping waivers wouldn’t address specific concerns regarding the new rules.  Instead they would roll back the nation’s significant recent progress in improving children’s diets.  Policymakers should put children’s health above industry pressure and refuse to undermine the school meal standards.