First lady Michelle Obama is striking back at House Republicans over their efforts to introduce flexibility to healthy school meal standards, saying any attempt to revise the current guidelines is “unacceptable.”
The standards originated in 2012 and were a major component of the first lady’s “Let’s Move!” campaign. They were the first major revision to the $11 billion school lunch program in 15 years. The rules require more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and set limits on sodium, sugar, and fat.
“The last thing we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health,” Obama said.
An agriculture spending bill approved by a House subcommittee last week would allow schools a one-year waiver of the standards if they have a net loss on school food programs for a six-month period. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., who wrote the bill, said he was responding to requests from school food directors who have said the rules are too restrictive. The House Appropriations Committee approved the spending bill this week.
The School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents school nutrition directors and companies that sell food to schools, has lobbied for changes to the standards and endorsed the House bill.
“Our request for flexibility under the new standards does not come from industry or politics, it comes from thousands of school cafeteria professionals who have shown how these overly prescriptive regulations are hindering their effort to get students to eat healthy school meals,” said SNA President Leah Schmidt.
The schools pushing for changes say limits on sodium and requirements for more whole grains are particularly challenging, and some school officials say kids throw away the required fruits and vegetables. Many schools already struggle to break even in their food programs. The new standards now force them to buy more expensive ingredients, and also cause them to drop some menu items altogether since vendors are not yet providing alternative products that meet the new standards.
Overall participation in school food programs has dropped since the standards went into effect. Just under 30 million children currently participate in school lunch and breakfast programs, down 1.2 million from the 31 million participating prior to 2012.
The standards are on a rolling implementation schedule, bringing new requirements each year. Of particular concern to the SNA are the sodium reductions scheduled for 2017. “One deli turkey sandwich with cheese and mustard would use up most of the sodium for the week,” Schmidt said.
The USDA, which administers the rules, has tweaked them along the way in an effort to help schools that have concerns. The department scrapped limits on the amount of proteins and grains kids could eat after students complained they were hungry. Last week, the USDA announced it would allow some schools to delay serving whole grain pastas just hours after the House subcommittee approved the opt-out language.