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Published August 25, 2014, 09:59 AM

ND, SD, Mont. get school meal grants

WASHINGTON — In a move that appears designed to counter criticism of the healthier school meals rules, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has given grants of more than a quarter million dollars to North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana to help implement the program in states where students, school food service directors and politicians have complained they don’t like some of the changes.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — In a move that appears designed to counter criticism of the healthier school meals rules, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has given grants of more than a quarter million dollars to North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana to help implement the program in states where students, school food service directors and politicians have complained they don’t like some of the changes.

Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and John Thune, R-S.D., have been among the most outspoken critics, and Hoeven introduced an amendment to the Senate version of the fiscal year 2015 Agriculture appropriations bill that would soften whole grains and salt reductions under the rules.

North Dakota will get $255,948, South Dakota will get $266,745 and Montana will get $349,812.

Many of those states in which there have been complaints are also the biggest producers of products that are subject to changes because the new rules require less fat, sugar and salt, and more whole grains. Blunting the criticism of the new rule could have important implications for fruit and vegetable growers because the School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service directors and the companies that prepare school foods, has asked Congress and USDA to pull back a rule that requires students take a fruit or vegetable at every meal.

Agriculture Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon did not emphasize where the grants would go. But he did question whether the House proposal requiring USDA to grant a waiver from the healthier school meal rules to any school that says its meal program has lost money for six months will ever become law.

“It is hard to reach enactment without support from Senate or the administration,” Concannon said.

Kansas got both a competitive grant of $299,453 and a noncompetitive grant of $49,423. Two years ago, students in one Kansas school produced a video called “We are Hungry,” protesting the new rules that has gotten more than 1 million views on YouTube, and Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., have been particularly critical of the new rules.

Nebraska, where Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., has also been a critic, got a competitive grant of $295,167 and a noncompetitive grant of $50,000.

A few urban states, including Michigan, the home of Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., also got grants, but proportionally more of the money went to rural states.

“Several states will use the grants to increase the number of schools implementing Smarter Lunchroom strategies, which are methods for encouraging kids to choose healthy foods that were developed by child nutrition experts,” USDA said in a press release. “Research has shown these strategies successfully lead to healthier choices among students. USDA is also funding 2,500 toolkits to provide school districts with the resources they need to take advantage of research on Smarter Lunchroom strategies.”

The assistance comes as the Obama administration begins the third year of implementing healthier school meal rules under the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. The biggest change this year is the implementation of the Smart Snacks rule, which says snacks served during the school day must comply with the same guidelines.

Changing palates

The School Nutrition Association, which represents the school food service directors, and some Republicans in Congress have said the new rules have led to 1 million fewer children eating school meals, plus waste when students throw out food they are served but don’t eat, and budgetary problems in individual schools.

Concannon confirmed academic reports that students who have dropped out of the school lunch program are more likely to be white, middle-class and rural, as well as a School Nutrition Association statement that most of the students no longer buying school lunch are middle-class students paying the highest prices, rather than those receiving free or reduced price meals.

“We have made a change,” Concannon said. “It takes a while for students’ palates [to adjust], just like adults. I believe we are going to prevail on the enrollment and participation numbers. Give us time. We’re in year three.”

David Just, a professor of behavioral economics at Cornell and co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (BEN), said his center had used USDA funds to develop a “Smarter Lunchrooms” program, which provides tactics to get children interested in healthier foods.

These tactics include instead of “throwing vegetables or fruit on the serving lines,” placing it in an attractive bowl near the cash register or in slices, positioning white milk in front of chocolate milk, and giving healthier foods descriptive names, Just said.

BEN has also developed a scorecard that parents, students and school officials can consult to see if a food fits the nutritional guidelines.

New Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards are being implemented this school year, offering mainly fruits and vegetables.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a private-sector group set up to support First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity, has developed a smart snacks calculator that can be used to figure out if a snack food meets USDA’s school guidelines, said Brian Weaver, the vice president of the alliance’s healthy schools program.

Noting the alliance has worked with food and beverage companies since 2006 on healthier foods and has 1,000 products in its catalogue, Weaver said, “Let’s face it. Change is hard. That is why the alliance is committed to helping schools meet their goals this year.”

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