Senators pursuing a legislative fix to a new school meal nutrition standard say they are not out to undermine efforts to combat child obesity but that they do believe the Agriculture Department erred in setting limits on the amount of grains and proteins cafeterias could serve students.
The lead sponsors — Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark. — say they do not want to make major changes to the federally subsidized school lunch and breakfast programs that feed 32 million children a day. Instead, they hope to make permanent a short-term waiver the Agriculture Department issued last year to allow school cafeterias more time to adjust to limits on grains and proteins, especially meat.
“We were careful to recognize that the objective here is nutritious meals and also make sure that we are combating childhood obesity,” Hoeven said. “It hits that balance.”
The additional flexibility for meals should also ease the added expense cafeterias face in changing their menus, he said.
When Congress reauthorized child nutrition programs in 2010, lawmakers included the first increase in per meal reimbursements since 1973. However, the additional 6 cents per meal for school cafeterias that met new nutrition standards was less than needed to fully cover costs for changing meals. The Agriculture Department estimates that school meal operators face a total $75 million a year in additional costs.
The law also set limits on the number of calories schools should offer students, as well as on grains and proteins. The goal was to get cafeterias to reduce the amount of refined grains served and to use more whole grains. The cap on protein was meant to encourage students to get their protein not only from meat but also from other sources such as dairy, seafood and nuts.
The lawmakers say they got involved in response to complaints from students that the new menus left some students feeling hungry and did not meet the needs of student athletes. The bill would keep the calorie limits placed on food servings.
So far advocates and public health groups do not see the Hoeven-Pryor bill (S 427) as an unraveling of nutrition standards that encourage more fresh fruits and vegetables and that limit fat, sugar, sodium and calories in children’s school meals. The victory for them was years in the making, culminating in the 111th Congress with a five-year reauthorization bill (PL 111-296).
Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the legislation appears to be benign although the grains and protein limits sparked backlash from some on Capitol HiIl.