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Bill Eases Rules on Meeting Dietary Guidelines

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Under legislation passed by the House last week, school districts that operate federally financed lunch and breakfast programs would not be forced to serve more vegetables and grains in order to meet dietary guidelines.

The bill, HR 2066, makes no changes to provisions of the National School Lunch Act that require school-nutrition programs to meet federal dietary standards, which were revised in 1990 to call for meals lower in fat and salt. Schools must comply with the new rules by the 1996-97 school year.

But the bill would countermand federal rules that imposed more-specific mandates about how schools should go about it. The law would allow districts to use "any reasonable approach, within guidelines established by the secretary [of agriculture]."

"The bottom line is that schools know best what children will eat," said Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee. "We need to free their hands to do the job that they know how to do best."

Mr. Goodling and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., a member of the panel, sponsored the legislation. It picked up the backing of the Clinton administration--which wrote the regulations in question--after the sponsors agreed to add language allowing the secretary of agriculture to offer further guidance to districts. It is unclear when Secretary Dan Glickman would issue that guidance.

HR 2066 passed the House under an expedited procedure reserved for passage of noncontroversial bills without a formal vote. A companion measure is awaiting committee action in the Senate.

Contentious Rules

The dispute over the rules began in June 1994, when the Department of Agriculture's Food and Consumer Service proposed new regulations for the $5.6-billion-a-year school-meals programs, which serve more than 25 million children nationwide. (See Education Week, June 15, 1994.)

The rules incorporated the 1990 changes in dietary guidelines, which, for the most part, refer only generally to the components of a healthy diet. But they specifically recommend that fat make up no more than 30 percent of calories and saturated fat no more than 10 percent. The rules parallel those standards, requiring the fat content of school meals--averaged over a week--to be under 30 percent and the saturated-fat content to average less than 10 percent.

Federal officials also proposed what they called "nutrient-standard menu planning" to ensure that schools met the guidelines. Under these new methods, schools and districts would purchase computer equipment in order to conduct nutrient analyses of their meal plans. Those unable to afford the equipment could form consortia with other districts or seek state assistance.

Some school food-service officials said the new method would allow schools more flexibility. Instead of making schools adhere to a prescribed "meal pattern"--specified servings of meat or meat alternative, fruits and vegetables, breads or grains, and milk--the nutrient analysis would allow any combination of items that met the guidelines as long as each meal included an entree, side items, and milk.

Fat and Flexibility

But some school officials complained about the expense of buying computer equipment. When Congress reauthorized the National School Lunch Act in the fall of 1994, it prohibited the Agriculture Department from requiring schools to use the computer analysis. (See Education Week, Oct. 19, 1994.)

So the final rules, issued in June 1995, allowed both the computer-analysis methods and a modified form of the meal-pattern method, which nearly all schools used.

For schools that continued to use the meal-pattern method, however, the USDA required an increase in their weekly use of fruits, vegetables, breads, and grains in order to ensure that schools met the requirements to reduce fat.

But school-food-service directors complained that the change could increase per-meal costs by as much as 10 cents.

The sponsors said HR 2066 would still require schools to reduce the fat content in their meals, but allow them to devise their own ways of doing so. They argued that many schools are already meeting the guidelines.

But a 1993 USDA study found that only 1 percent of school meals had fat content below 30 percent.

Allen Rosenfeld, the vice president for programs at Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, an advocacy group here, said HR 2066 "potentially can be a very good thing."

"It's really going to depend on what the administration does with the guidelines they lay out," he said.

Ed Cooney, the deputy director of the Food Research and Action Council, a Washington-based child-nutrition advocacy group, agreed.

The language giving the secretary of agriculture the authority to issue guidelines for meals programs is "a delicately crafted and very useful compromise," he said. FRAC supported the bill after the addition of the language.

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