Food Fight Fizzles As Senate Nears Compromise on School Nutrition Rules

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Students at Doherty Middle School in Andover, Mass., choose items from the salad bar in the school cafeteria, June 2012. Among other things, a Senate compromise on school nutrition standards calls for the USDA and the CDC to establish new guidance that would encourage the use of salad bars. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty )

The Senate Agriculture Committee has voted in support of a compromise plan that will preserve key school nutrition standards enacted after the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010.

Yep, that's the law that requires schools to serve up more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It also paved the way for major reductions in salt.

These stricter standards have led to more healthful meals. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics earlier this month concluded that the nutritional quality of school meals has increased by about 30 percent, as children consume more vitamins and fiber and slightly fewer calories. An analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documents improvements, too.

But it hasn't been smooth sailing. As we've reported, the School Nutrition Association — which represents school cafeteria administrators (or meal program operators) — has lobbied Congress to relax some standards. The group says many cafeterias have lost money, as stricter standards have made it tougher to keep students who pay in the lunch line.

Now, it seems a compromise is within reach. The bill the Senate committee passed Wednesday will give schools much of the flexibility they've been asking for.


For instance, schools will get more leeway in transitioning to whole grain products. The compromise stipulates that 20 percent of grains served can fall short of the whole-grain standard. This means schools can still occasionally serve old favorites such as white tortillas or biscuits. Also, schools will get more time (two additional years) to meet new lower-sodium targets.

When the School Nutrition Association began asking Congress to relax the rules, it sparked a food fight. Public health advocates fought back. James Perrin, who was serving as the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, spoke out, saying, "Rolling back the standards is the wrong choice for children." First lady Michelle Obama spoke out in opposition, too.

But with the new compromise in reach, this fight is fizzling out.

"Given the politics around school lunch, this bill is a sensible compromise that preserves most of the school nutrition standards," says Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been a central player in fighting to keep the standards intact.

Given that the bill passed the Senate committee unanimously, "it suggests the bill has a good chance of passing out of the full Senate," says Wootan.

And the School Nutrition Association has signaled its support as well. "This agreement eases operational challenges and provides school meal programs critical flexibility to help them plan healthy school meals that appeal to students," writes Jean Ronnei, president of the SNA, in a release about the agreement.

The SNA had asked for more federal funding to offset the costs of serving more healthful school meals, but increased funding is not part of the deal. The SNA had also asked to soften the fruit and vegetable requirement, but lawmakers didn't budge on this key tenet of the standards.

To address food waste in schools, the agreement calls for the USDA and the CDC to establish new guidance that would encourage the use of salad bars and so-called share tables, where students can place a fruit or vegetable they don't want to eat rather than tossing it away.

Currently, according to the CDC, approximately one-third of schools offer salad bars. But many healthful-eating advocates would like to see this number increase. "Salad bars are a terrific way to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. It gives them more choice and more control," says the CSPI's Wootan.

Schools say food-safety concerns are one reason they don't offer salad bars, in addition to the extra labor involved.

The compromise bill also calls for the formation of an advisory group to examine Smart Snack rules. These are the standards for a la carte foods sold outside the breakfast and lunch programs. The rules also govern foods sold in school vending machines. The advisory group will develop policy recommendations.

"We are pleased the Senate is making bipartisan progress to reauthorize critical child nutrition programs, " Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote in a release.

"The bill is consistent with the approach taken at USDA all along, which is to provide reasonable flexibility for schools as they continue transitioning to the updated standards — an approach that is working," wrote Vilsack.

Copyright 2016 NPR.