Congress eases whole grain and sodium requirements in school meals

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — The fiscal 2015 omnibus spending package passed by Congress last week (Dec. 11 by the House of Representatives and Dec. 13 by the Senate) provided relief to school nutrition authorities encountering difficulties in meeting certain requirements contained in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Specifically, riders approved as part of the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015, provided exemptions to the 100% whole grain-rich requirement for schools demonstrating hardship meeting the mandate and suspended further sodium reductions beyond limits that took effect with the 2014-15 school year until there is scientific research that shows there would be a benefit to children.

The act directed the secretary of agriculture to “allow states to grant an exemption from the whole grain requirements that took effect on or after July 1, 2014, and the states shall establish a process for evaluating and responding, in a reasonable amount of time, to requests for an exemption.”

In order to receive an exemption, a school nutrition authority would have to “demonstrate hardship, including financial hardship, in procuring specific whole grain products which are acceptable to students and compliant with the whole grain-rich requirements.” School nutrition authorities receiving exemptions still would be required to comply “with the applicable grain component or standard with respect to the school lunch or school breakfast program that was in effect prior to July 1, 2014.” The pre-July 2014 standard required half of the grains offered during the school week meet the whole grain-rich criteria.

The act further directed that no funds be appropriated under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act or another law “that would require a reduction in the quantity of sodium contained in federally reimbursed meals, foods and snacks sold in schools below Target 1 until the latest scientific research establishes the reduction is beneficial for children.”

The Target 1 levels that took effect at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year are as follows: for kindergarten through fifth-grade students, 540 mgs per day (1,230 calories); for grades 6 through 8, 600 mgs (1,360 calories), and for grades 9 through 12, 640 mgs (1,420 calories).

Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, Target 2 levels would begin with the 2017-18 school year, and Target 3 (final) levels would be implemented with the 2022-23 school year. In the case of school meals served to students in grades 9-12, sodium levels would be capped at 570 mgs per day under Target 2 and 500 mgs per day under Target 3.

“Congress has taken a critical first step toward addressing the challenges school nutrition professionals face as they implement new nutrition standards,” said Patricia Montague, chief executive officer of the School Nutrition Association. “Although well-intended, some of U.S.D.A.’s rules went too far, too fast, and ended up driving students away from healthy school meals while unnecessarily driving up costs for schools.

“S.N.A. appreciates Congress’ dedication to ensuring the regulations achieve the goals of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, designed to encourage more students to eat nutritious school meals. S.N.A. thanks Senator John Hoeven (North Dakota) and Representative Robert Aderholt (Alabama), who heeded the concerns of students, families and school nutrition professionals in their districts and worked diligently to ensure students continue to receive healthy and appealing school meals.”

Ms. Montague said the S.N.A. will continue to work with the U.S.D.A. and Congress in the coming year “to advocate for commonsense changes to improve the regulations and protect the financial viability of school meal programs.”

Most food industry associations supported the legislation’s easing of the requirements on school breakfast and lunch programs with regard to whole grains and sodium.

In a letter to members of the Senate on the eve of their vote on the spending bill, the American Bakers Association urged support of legislation and its “granting more flexibility to schools in order to meet whole grain standards in the U.S.D.A. School Meals Program” and its “freezing sodium recommendations at the July 1 (Target 1) levels, until science shows they should be adjusted to benefit children’s health.”
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