Hoeven introduces relaxed school meals

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., introduced legislation that would give schools more flexibility in the kinds of grain products they serve and stop further reductions in sodium in school meals.

John Hoeven
John Hoeven portrait

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., introduced legislation that would give schools more flexibility in the kinds of grain products they serve and stop further reductions in sodium in school meals.

Stricter school meal rules have been put in place under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which was championed by First Lady Michelle Obama.

The relaxed rules would have a big impact on school purchases of foods.

Hoeven announced the bill speech to the School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service directors and the companies that make foods for the schools.

Schools have complained they cannot find whole-grain rich bread products and dairy and cheese companies said it will be difficult to make pizza and other cheese products palatable if they have to make further reductions in salt.


In a news release, Hoeven noted that in July 2012, U.S. Department of Agriculture began requiring that at least half of all grains offered with school meals be whole-grain rich, and in July 2014 it required all grains be whole-grain rich.

"The Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act restores the requirement back to 50 percent of total grains to ensure continued access to a wide variety of grain products," Hoeven said. "This will enable schools to serve items like biscuits, tortillas and pasta that students will eat."

The sodium provision would prevent USDA from requiring further sodium reductions in school meals below the current level, which became effective in July 2014.

"If additional sodium reductions are implemented, schools would have a difficult time meeting targets when serving healthy foods with naturally occurring sodium, including milk, cheese and meat," Hoeven said. "For example, schools would be unable to serve healthy choices like low-fat, whole grain cheese pizza, many Asian dishes and deli sandwiches."

SNA leaders have complained the healthier school meal rules have led to a decline in participation.

"Too many students have swapped school lunch for unhealthy alternatives, which defeats the goal of the standards and reduces revenue to invest in healthy, appealing menus," SNA President Julia Bauscher said. "Under Sen. Hoeven's bill, all schools will continue to serve nutritious meals that meet current sodium reductions and offer a wide variety of whole grains."

Hoeven introduced the bill the same week Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he was planning to develop a bipartisan bill to reauthorize child nutrition programs.

Roberts said he wants the bill to provide "flexibility" to those schools that are having trouble complying with the school meal regulations under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.


Roberts said he would consider including Hoeven's bill in the larger child nutrition reauthorization bill.

Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, also introduced a bill to provide schools with more modern kitchen equipment. That bill could also be incorporated into the child nutrition reuathoarization bill.

Under that bill, school administrators or other eligible borrowers could obtain federal guarantees for 80 percent of the loan value needed to construct, remodel, or expand school kitchens, dining, or food storage infrastructure. Targeted grant assistance would give school administrators and food service directors the seed funding needed to upgrade kitchen infrastructure or purchase kitchen equipment such as commercial ovens, steamers and stoves.

The bill would also strengthen training and technical assistance to help school food service personnel meet nutrition standards.

"While schools across North Dakota have been able to meet updated nutrition standards in the meals they serve, they could use some help to better prepare healthy meals for their students," Heitkamp said. "When they don't have the right equipment or resources, school food service personnel can't be as efficient as possible, and are often faced with the burden of added costs."

Eating what's served?

There has also been controversy over whether children are throwing away the healthier foods, particularly fruits and vegetables.

But students are eating more fruit and throwing away less of their entrees and vegetables since the new healthier school meals rules went into effect, according to a study published recently in the journal Childhood Obesity.


The study was led by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Researchers tracked students from 12 middle schools in an urban district for three years -- from the spring of 2012 through the spring of 2014 -- before the standards changed and two years after.

But the SNA, which has asked Congress to end a requirement that students take a half cup of fruits and vegetables with each meal, discounted the study's methodology.

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