Participants in a long-running fight in Congress—over whether to rework school nutrition standards pushed by First Lady Michelle Obama—reached a compromise, as the School Nutrition Association worked with lawmakers to find a balance.
A 2010 law that changed the rules for what is allowed in school lunches has been a major point of contention in the education world, but it appears that a compromise has finally been reached.
The School Nutrition Association, which had become a major critic of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, has thrown its support behind a bill intended to replace the legislation. The bipartisan bill represents a compromise among SNA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the White House, and the Senate Agriculture Committee, which passed the measure unanimously earlier this week.
The bill helps ease some of the requirements of the original law, which SNA had criticized since 2014 over concerns about food waste and inflexible rules.
Among the key changes in the new bill:
Flexibility on whole grains. The 2010 law required that all food offerings with grains be whole-grain rich. The rules now cut the requirement down to 80 percent whole grains, allowing for the occasional use of enriched grains.
Reconsidering à la carte. The à la carte rules put into place by the Smart Snacks in School guidelines implemented in 2014 severely limited the snack offerings in à la carte stands—a revenue source for local schools—including the banning of some offerings seen as nutritional. The bill allows for the creation of a working group that could create exceptions for some foods.
Delaying sodium rules. The 2010 law required lower sodium standards for school lunches be implemented by 2017. The new bill allows the change to take effect in 2019 instead. The American Heart Association, which had pushed for the standard, still approved of the changes. “We liked the way it was originally, but it still puts kids’ health first, still moves nutrition standards forward and takes out the uncertainty,” AHA Government Relations Manager Kristy Anderson told The Hill.
Keeping salad bars on the menu. One of the largest sticking points for SNA about the law was a serving requirement for fruits and vegetables, which the association argued created excess waste because students were forced to take foods they weren’t going to eat. While the new bill doesn’t change that rule, it clarifies the health and safety of salad bars and sharing tables, which some local health inspectors had raised issue with.
“SNA was pleased to work alongside USDA in crafting practical solutions to help school nutrition professionals in their ongoing efforts to improve school meal programs for students,” SNA President Jean Ronnei said in a news release. “In the absence of increased funding, this agreement eases operational challenges and provides school meal programs critical flexibility to help them plan healthy school meals that appeal to students.”
Groups on the other side of the issue, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, decided that the compromise struck the right balance.
“Given the politics around school lunch, this bill is a sensible compromise that preserves most of the school nutrition standards,” the group’s Margo Wootan told NPR.