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Published July 28, 2014, 11:11 AM

Others remain in support of current rules

WASHINGTON — Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., John Thune, R-S.D., and other rural Republicans tried to make a case for changes to the current healthier school meals program at a July 23 Senate Agriculture Committee hearing. But they hit a fairly solid wall of support for keeping the current rules in place.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., John Thune, R-S.D., and other rural Republicans tried to make a case for changes to the current healthier school meals program at a July 23 Senate Agriculture Committee hearing. But they hit a fairly solid wall of support for keeping the current rules in place.

Congress is not scheduled to reauthorize the school meals until 2015, but the School Nutrition Association, which represents the school food service directors and the companies that make school foods, has called on Congress to roll back some of the provisions in healthier meal rules the U.S. Department of Agriculture has promulgated under the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.

SNA says children are reacting negatively to some of the foods that have been introduced and are throwing away fruits and vegetables. The group has called for more flexibility and an end to the requirement that children must be served a half-cup or fruits of vegetables with each meal.

SNA has also backed a provision in the House version of the 2015 Agriculture appropriations bill to require USDA to grant a waiver to any school that said it had lost money in its meals program for six months.

But the real battle seems to be over reauthorization, since the Agriculture appropriations bill does not seem to be moving in either the House or the Senate, and in the eyes of USDA, the 2014 to ’15 school year began on July 1.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., started the hearing by saying “reversing course is not an option because the health of our children is directly linked to the health of our economy, national security and long-term sustainability as a nation.”

Stabenow also said that on her visits to Michigan schools she has been impressed “to see elementary school students enjoying broccoli and pineapple from salad bars, and students learning about where their food comes from through farm to school garden efforts.”

Her statements were backed by testimony from Betti Wiggins, the executive director of the Office of Food Services in the Detroit Public Schools.

Wiggins said Detroit welcomed the higher nutritional standards in the 2010 act and immediately started implementing the new meals.

Three other witnesses testified that healthier school meal rules are working, while Julia Bauscher, who has just been elected SNA president, said schools need more flexibility in order to keep students, especially middle-class children, buying school lunches.

Bauscher is the director of school and community nutrition services in the Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky.

“Virtually all of the students leaving the lunch program are those who can afford to bring their lunch from home or purchase it elsewhere,” she said, adding that the number of students paying full price for meals has declined 15 percent nationwide in the past year.

A different message

Hoeven, Thune and fellow Republicans Mike Johanns of Nebraska and John Boozman of Arkansas said when they visit schools, students frequently criticize the school lunch program, and Johanns suggested to Wiggins that there should be flexibility because places are so different.

Wiggins said the children of the working poor bring junk food to school, but under community eligibility provisions that allow free lunches, she can “embrace” them with healthier meals.

Wiggins also said Indian reservations in rural states are like “small Detroits” that need good nutrition.

Hoeven said he is opposed to the rule that began July 1 requiring 100 percent of breads and pasta be whole-grain rich, which means they are composed of at least 51 percent whole grains. He pressed all the panelists to promise they would personally eat only whole-grain enriched pasta and bread for the next year.

Wiggins told Hoeven she would agree to support flexibility only “if it’s reasonable.”

Katie Wilson, executive director of the National Food Service Management Institute at the University of Mississippi, said, “From a scientific and nutritional standpoint, we need to go with whole grains.”

After Hoeven left the hearing, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said she wished he would be there to hear her statement, which amounted to a sermon against feeding kids what they want.

“Of course kids like non-whole grains, they like sugar even more,” Gillibrand said. “It is what they like, their taste buds love it. We have to be the adults in the room. We have to teach them how to eat well for their whole lives.”

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