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Senators Seek Flexible Fix to School Lunch Law

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
Hoeven, a lead sponsor, says he does not want to make major changes to the federally subsidized school lunch and breakfast programs that feed 32 million children a day.

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Public health groups and nutrition advocates are more worried about the possibility that lawmakers might try to undo limits on sodium, fats, sugar and calories and dial back a greater emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables in school lunch and breakfasts. These areas are the foundation for building healthier diets for kids, they argue. The Agriculture Department is taking public comments on proposed standards for so-called competitive foods — items sold in vending machines and on a la carte lines — through April 9.

The House Education and the Workforce Committee is more wary of the changes. The panel, which has jurisdiction over child nutrition programs in the House, said the broader changes opened the door to micromanagement. In its budget views and estimate letter, the education panel urged the Budget Committee to consider ways to “reverse the costly nature of the new regulations.”

Laurie Whitsel, policy research director for the American Heart Association, said while the substance of the Senate bill is not worrisome, she is a little uneasy about lawmakers trying to resolve a nutrition dispute between school meal providers and the Agriculture Department.

“I think it sets a bad precedent for Congress to get involved in the implementation of legislation. I think that’s really USDA’s area. I think it’s really best left to the agency,” Whitsel said. “We have to be careful to make sure politics aren’t influencing the implementation and that it’s really for the agency to take into account the feedback that it is getting and follow through on that.”

In the 112th Congress, lawmakers interceded on two points of contention on school meals. The Agriculture Department proposed limiting servings of potatoes, corn and peas because of their starch or carbohydrate levels and to no longer count tomato sauce, often served on pizza, as a vegetable. Policy riders in appropriations bills kept the status quo.

Given past friction over nutrition standards, Pryor said he hesitated about joining Hoeven in co-sponsoring the bill.

“I was a little concerned right when we started. I want a healthy nutritious meal for our kids at school. I was afraid that maybe some people were saying, ‘Let’s water that down, let’s not do that,’” Pryor said earlier this month.

But he said that after talking with Arkansas school district officials and meal operators he became convinced that the Agriculture Department had taken a “one-size-fits-all” approach that required greater flexibility.

Pryor said his bill strikes a balance between allowing school meal providers more options and preserving the overall goal of better nutrition included in the 2010 law, which was written by his former Arkansas colleague, Blanche Lincoln, when she was Agriculture chairwoman.

“We do need the flexibility,” Pryor said.

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