Student Well-Being

School Lunch Compromise Moves Forward in Congress

By Evie Blad — January 20, 2016 3 min read
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The Senate Agriculture Committee approved a bill Wednesday morning that would reauthorize child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.

The bill would ease the controversial nutrition standards created under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (the current version of the law), though it would not eliminate as many of the provisions as some child health organizations had feared.

“What makes our country so great is that we never back down from a challenge when we have the opportunity to improve the lives of our children,” ranking member Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, said in the committee meeting, citing work to negotiate a compromise.

The bill now faces consideration by the Senate. It drew praise from advocacy groups on all sides of the nutrition debate, but some school administrator groups said it wouldn’t go far enough to ease administrative burdens and costly provisions.

As I outlined Friday, the bill would:

  • Delay new sodium restrictions from 2017 to 2019;
  • Ease requirements so that only 80 percent of grain items must be whole-grain rich, rather than 100 percent;
  • Maintain requirements that schools serve fresh fruits and vegetables;
  • Provide grants and loan assistance for school kitchen equipment upgrades; and
  • Create new requirements for verifying eligibility of some participating students.

Praise for Compromise

“The School Nutrition Association greatly appreciates the leadership of the Senate Agriculture Committee in crafting a bipartisan reauthorization bill that offers practical solutions for school meal programs and the students they serve,” School Nutrition Association President Jean Ronnei said in a statement.

The organization, which had criticized the nutrition standards, praised the bill’s inclusion of school equipment grants and changes to the administration of school meal programs.

The National School Boards Association called the bill “an important and promising first step toward incorporating the local school district governance perspective in implementation of school meal programs.”

Health advocacy groups that argued strenuously against changes to the school lunch rules also praised the bill. Among them, the Pew Charitable Trusts Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project.

“This proposal ensures that good nutrition remains the core ingredient in school meal programs,” Jessica Donze Black, the project’s director, said in a statement.

Continued Concerns

But some groups that represent districts and educational administrators opposed the legislation in letters to the committee this week.

“The bill simply does not adequately address important operation and financial issues that exist in the current federal school meal programs,” Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools wrote.

“In short, the Committee bill basically leaves in place the current federal requirements that limit local menu flexibility, restrict school cafeteria revenue, contribute to less attractive food offerings, reduce student participation in school meals, create plate waste, and increase local costs,” the letter says. “Moreover, the proposed new verification requirements appear to add to local administrative costs and may result in otherwise eligible low-income students being excluded from federal subsidized meals—another cost that most school districts will then absorb without federal reimbursement.”

AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said new verification requirements and program rules would come as school districts are also transitioning to the Every Student Succeeds Act. The organization also criticized the new verification requirements and said the bill wouldn’t address all of its concerns with federal meal programs.

“The priorities we advanced in reauthorization represented modifications, not complete overhauls, and we remain concerned that the proposed changes aren’t substantive enough to provide meaningful relief to schools,” AASA legislative analyst Leslie Finnan wrote to the committee. Read her whole letter here.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.