Draft language released by the House Appropriations Committee that gives schools a chance to opt out of federal nutrition standards if they claim hardship is a backward step for millions of kids, produce and nutrition advocates say.

The House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture will review its proposed 2015 appropriations bill in a May 20 hearing slated for 10 a.m. Eastern.

In a news release from the committee, lawmakers said they were responding to the requests of local schools when they included language requiring the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish a process that will allow schools demonstrating an economic hardship to seek a temporary waiver from compliance with certain nutrition regulations during the 2014-15 school year.

Congress shouldn’t shortchange students a half a cup of fruits and vegetables in their school meals through the appropriations process, said Ray Gilmer, vice president of issues management and communication for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association,

Tom Stenzel, United Fresh president, penned letters May 16 to lawmakers in both the House and Senate about school nutrition standards, asking the appropriators to leave the fruit and vegetables requirements untouched.

“Together with leaders of the public health community and moms and dads across America, we are appalled at the suggestion that somehow Congress should now intervene to block USDA’s commitment to children taking one-half cup of fruits and vegetables as a component of school lunch and breakfast,” Stenzel said in the letter. “One-half cup? Really, that is too big a burden to support children’s health? How can anyone truly call it a “meal” without at least one-half cup of a fruit or vegetable?”

Gilmer said May 19 that United Fresh staffers were hand-delivering the letters and half-cup measures labeled with the message “Keep half a cup for the kids” to the offices of lawmakers in both the House and Senate.

The House draft appropriations language “blows a huge hole through the school lunch standards,” said Tracy Fox, president of Food, Nutrition & Policy Consultants LLC.

She said 90% of schools have already adopted the updated nutrition standards and are receiving increased reimbursements from the USDA because they are complying with the new rules.

“I think (the House action) is disguised as flexibility, but it is pretty much unraveling the school meal standards,” she said.

To qualify for the House opt-out language, Fox said any school district can claim they lose money — even a dime — because of slightly higher food costs or lower participation.

“They can basically claim that they are losing money and therefore stop or reverse the standards,” she said.

While the appropriations bill is only in effect for fiscal year 2015, Fox said the appropriation language could prove to be the dismantling of school meal regulations.

“Hopefully the Senate is more enlightened about what this truly is and also understands the damage this would cause to millions of kids across the country,” she said.

Fox said that the House bill would set a bad precedent in terms of Congress tinkering with nutrition standards through the appropriations process.

“It is not their role—they are not nutritionists,” Fox said, noting the USDA has shown sufficient flexibility in implementation of school nutrition standards.

Jessica Donze Black, an expert with Pew Charitable Trusts’ initiative on child nutrition, said in a statement that it was unfortunate the House would consider letting schools opt out of efforts to improve the health of children served through these programs.

“We urge the House Appropriations Committee to drop this provision from the bill so that we may continue the progress that so many schools have made,” she said.

“Turning back now would be a costly mistake.”

 

SNA support

The National Harbor, Md.-based School Nutrition Association supported the draft language of the House Appropriations Committee. The group said in a news release that the group did not ask Congress to roll back or gut nutrition standards for schools, “unlike some have stated.”

“SNA members support the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, but some of USDA’s regulations go too far, actually pushing students away from healthy school meals and threatening the financial viability of school meal programs,” SNA President Leah Schmidt said in the release.

She said in the release that since new standards took effect, more than one million fewer students choose school lunch each day, which the SNA said was “an unintended negative consequence of standards designed to promote healthier diets.” In the 2013 Back to School Trends Survey, the SNA survey found that 47% of school districts reported revenue declines in school meal programs during the 2012-13 school year.

“School meal programs need more flexibility to plan menus that increase student consumption of healthy choices while limiting waste,” Schmidt said in the release. “Under the changes SNA is requesting, cafeterias would continue to offer a wide variety of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and school meals would continue to meet limits on fat and calories and reasonable restrictions on sodium.”

Fox said that School Nutrition Association position ignores the fact that many school nutrition professionals are already meeting the standards and fully prepared for smart snack rules that will begin this fall.

The Senate Appropriations Committee had not yet released draft language of their bill, but the agriculture subcommittee was expected to meet at 3 p.m. Eastern May 20 to consider language for their funding bill.