The School Nutrition Association, which counts school lunch and breakfast managers and their suppliers as members, backs the legislation. The weekly limits tied the hands of providers who wanted to offer students choices in their meals, association president Sandra Ford said. For example, she said, a sandwich alternative with two slices of whole grain bread could push meals over the weekly maximum for grains. A salad made with grilled chicken and low-fat cheese exceeded weekly protein limits, while soups made from scratch could cross the line because of small amounts of chicken or noodles, she said.
“These menu choices are commonly offered in schools as a daily alternative to the nutritious hot entree choices of the day. Students feel comfortable knowing that if they did not like the hot entree they could choose from a deli sandwich, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a chef’s salad,” Ford said.
Meeting the standard meant that Ford’s school could offer sandwiches only four days out of five, a change that left a first-grader in tears, she said, because he could not have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Wootan said an adjustment period for school meal providers and students is to be expected, but she said it was “a complicated rule that turned out to be more of a problem for schools than USDA anticipated,” so the Agriculture Department responded with the waiver.
“This was a place where they could offer schools flexibility, and it was not harmful to kids, and they did it,” Wootan said.
Public health groups and nutrition advocates might be more concerned if the bill targeted calorie caps, she added.
“The amount of calories in school lunches should be determined by nutrition experts and not on the Hill for political reasons,” she said.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who introduced legislation last year to repeal all new school meal nutrition standards, questions the need for calorie limits. King, whose state is a top pork-producing state, said it all smacked of an effort to move meat off the plate.
“You have a cap written into it on meat that can be supplemented by other forms of protein. So I would define that as rationing meat. What would the rationale be?” King recently asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at a House Agriculture Committee hearing on an unrelated topic.
“It’s giving school districts choices in terms of their protein choices and making sure that they understand the importance of a balanced plate and a balanced meal,” Vilsack responded.