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House Should Drop School Meal Waivers from Agriculture Spending Bill

The fiscal year 2015 agriculture spending bill that the House began considering today would establish sweeping waivers from new nutrition standards for school breakfasts and lunches.  The House should not approve the bill as long as it includes that provision, which risks rolling back significant recent progress in improving children’s diets.

As we’ve explained, Congress directed the Agriculture Department (USDA) just a few years ago to strengthen school meal standards, partly in response to the alarming rise in child obesity in recent decades.  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 school lunches served meet them.  The breakfast standards are phasing in.

Partly in response to pressure from some big companies that sell foods to schools, the 2015 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.  School districts receiving waivers 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.  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.

A wide range of concerned groups oppose the House waivers, including those representing pediatricians, educators, public health professionals, and groups working to improve nutrition and reduce hunger.  The White House has threatened to veto the bill, in large part because of the waiver provision.  Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) plans to offer an amendment that would strip the provision from the bill.

To be sure, some individual districts have had trouble complying with specific parts of the school meal standards.  But sweeping statutory waivers aren’t needed to address such concerns.  USDA provides extensive technical assistance to school districts in such cases, and the Senate Appropriations Committee-approved agriculture spending bill would require USDA to develop a comprehensive plan to give schools enhanced training and technical assistance to comply with the standards.  It would also address specific concerns related to sodium limits in the new standards.

House members can show that they genuinely want to improve children’s health by refusing to undermine the school meal standards.