Battle over child nutrition beginning

12/12/2013 05:24:00 PM
Tom Karst

While updated legislation won’t be considered until 2015, the battle over the next round of federal funding for child nutrition is beginning.

Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., introduced legislation Dec. 5 called “Reducing Federal Mandates on School Lunch Act,” which she said would give schools more flexibility in serving meat and grains while still staying within calorie maximums. Noem said the legislation also would give administrators flexibility on some of the rules that have increased costs for school districts. Noem said her bill has been endorsed by the National School Boards Association, the School Superintendents Association, and the Council of the Great City Schools.

Two other school meal bills have been introduced in the House of Representatives, said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C. United Fresh has not taken a formal position yet on the Noem bill, she said.

DiSogra said current child nutrition legislation doesn’t expire until Sept. 30, 2015, but Capitol Hill meetings on child nutrition reauthorization have already stated, she said. Most nutrition advocates look at Noem’s bill as a type of placeholder in the coming debate over child nutrition reauthorization, DiSogra said.

DiSogra said the USDA has already given schools a waiver on meat and grains guidelines, pledging to make the flexibility permanent.

Another part of Noem’s bill goes beyond other proposals, DiSogra said. If a school district can prove complying with meal guidelines forces it to raise costs, that district can be exempt.

“If her bill made it into law, she wants to give school districts the right to say to their state that they can’t meet the new regulations because of increased costs,” she said.

DiSogra said that gives school districts power to override federal regulations.

“School districts could say we don’t have the money to serve fruits and vegetables so therefore we are not going to do it,” she said. “That provision could negate all aspects of the school lunch and school breakfast regulation everywhere if a school district decides to do it,” she said.

In  addition, the proposed legislation prevents the USDA from defining the phrase “cost of compliance” or put parameters around how school districts calculate those costs. 

Another school nutrition regulation, on “competitive school foods” — focusing on food from vending machines and other non-school meal sources — is set for July. The National School Boards Association, in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in late October, called for a one-year delay on that legislation.



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