Tweaking the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program to make room for processed items but keeping in place the half-cup requirement for fruits and vegetables in school meals, the Senate’s agriculture committee has agreed on a bill to reauthorize school nutrition programs. The committee will meet Jan. 20 to vote on the legislation.
Under the terms of the bill, called “Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016,” schools participating in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program will be allowed to apply for a hardship exemption to serve all forms of fruits and vegetables. The legislation also establishes benchmarks for schools participating in the hardship exemption to transition from all forms to fresh fruits and vegetables.
“While we are disappointed that the bill changes the highly effective and very popular Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, we appreciate the committee’s commitment to maintain the goal of the (program) to provide students with fresh fruits and vegetables as snacks,” Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association said in a statement.
Stenzel said the Senate child nutrition bill that protects healthy school meals, including access to more fruits and vegetables.
“We also support the committee’s goal to promote school salad bars as an effective strategy to increase children’s access and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables,” Stenzel said in the statement. “This bill reaffirms the importance of doubling the amount and variety of fruits and vegetables in school meals and ensuring that all school meals include fruits and vegetables.”
Jessica Donze Black, director of Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods for The Pew Charitable Trusts, said Jan. 19 that the bill will maintain the momentum of updated school nutrition standards. “There’s not a huge investment, but with the limited resources there are, it will keep things moving forward.”
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also congratulated the bipartisan work of the Senate on child nutrition programs.
“(The legislation) maintains our commitment to science-based nutrition standards for school meals and protects the advancements we have made in children’s health since the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act,” Vilsack said in his statement. Vilsack said a 2014 Harvard study shows that in some schools, under the updated standards, kids are now eating 16% more vegetables and 23% more fruit at lunch.
What’s more, Vilsack cited a 2015 study by the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that kids ate nearly 20% more of their vegetables in the schools they examined after the standards were updated.
“Multiple surveys have documented how the majority of parents and students like the new meals, and — most important — new evidence suggests after decades of a growing obesity epidemic that harmed the health and future of our children and cost our country billions, we are starting to see progress in preventing this disease,” Vilsack said in the statement. “The bill sustains and supports this progress.”
The Senate bill is a bipartisan compromise that preserves the important progress made in the last five years while giving a bit of flexibility to those school systems that are still finding some of the standards challenging, Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a statement. She said the bill leaves in place updated standards in the child nutrition legislation of 2010, which removed soda and most junk food from schools and upped servings of fruits and vegetables in school lunches.
“The Senate language leaves in place those goals while giving school foodservice directors additional time to achieve sodium targets and some flexibility on whole grains,” she said.
Wootan said the legislation supports healthy school foods through school foodservice equipment and training and technical assistance, and expands farm-to-school programs. 
“It’s our hope that as the draft legislation winds its way through both houses of Congress, it can be managed with the same bipartisan spirit that has characterized the school lunch program since its inception in 1946,” she said.
The House of Representatives has yet to introduce legislation to reauthorize child nutrition programs.
The School Nutrition Association — which had expressed reservations about the fruit and vegetable mandate for school meals — said in a statement that the group was part of the negotiations and supports the legislation.
The group said the Senate’s legislation will direct the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish new guidance, designed for local governments, confirming the safety of and encouraging the use of salad bars and sharing tables in schools.