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Lawmakers Seek Delay On Healthy Lunch Rules For Schools

Some schools say they're having a tough time implementing new nutrition rules requiring more whole grains, more veggies and less fat.
Toby Talbot
Some schools say they're having a tough time implementing new nutrition rules requiring more whole grains, more veggies and less fat.

How hard can it be for school cafeterias to swap white bread for whole-grain tortillas, cut sodium, and nudge kids to put more fruit and vegetables on their trays?

Tougher than you might imagine, according to some schools.

From the Waterford school district in Wisconsin to the Voorheesville school district in New York to Arlington Heights in Illinois, schools have complained that the healthy school lunch standards that became law in 2012 are just too challenging. They say they need more time to figure out how to limit calories and fat, and get more veggies on every plate.

And some lawmakers agree.

Congressional Republicans in charge of funding the school lunch program are proposing a waiver that would give schools a one-year reprieve from the standards if they are operating at a net loss.

The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food administrators and is supported by food service manufacturers, wants the waiver. The SNA estimates that about 1 million fewer students participated in the school lunch program last year — in part due to the new federal requirements.

"A temporary waiver would ease the burden on school meal programs, preventing more schools from dropping out of the National School Lunch Program altogether," SNA President Leah Schmidt writes in a release supporting the waiver.

In addition, the SNA is asking Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to relax some new regulations — such as the requirement that students must take a fruit or vegetable as part of a meal.

"Forcing students to take a food they don't want on their tray has led to increased program costs, plate waste, and a decline in student participation," the SNA writes in a statement.

The SNA says it's asking for more flexibility, but some consumer health advocates are critical of the proposed changes. Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says "really they are asking Congress to significantly roll back standards."

"By allowing school districts to opt out of school nutrition standards, House Republicans are opening up the floodgates to let all the old junk food back into schools, while crowding out the fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that have been gaining ground in the program," Wootan adds.

Alabama Republican Robert Aderholt, chairman of the House agriculture subcommittee, disagrees. "I continually hear from my schools in Alabama about the challenges and costs they are facing and their desperation for flexibility and relief so that they can operate a [school meal] program serving healthy foods the kids will eat," he said in opening remarks at a hearing Tuesday.

USDA has said in the past that it doesn't have the authority to grant a waiver on the standards, but today announced it could grant schools more flexibility on one of them — the requirement to increase the amount of whole grains in pasta products.

Currently, half of all products served must be "whole-grain rich," which USDA defines as products made of at least 50 percent whole grain. By the start of the next school year, the law says schools must use only products that are whole-grain rich.

But this year, USDA heard feedback from some schools suggesting that certain whole-grain-rich pastas were falling apart. "Some of the available products, such as lasagna and elbow noodles, degraded easily during preparation and service and were difficult to use in larger-scale cooking operations," a press release from the department says.

So the USDA is offering a two-year extension for schools that can "demonstrate significant challenges in serving whole-grain rich pastas" to continue serving "traditional enriched pasta products" for up to two more years as the food industry develops better whole-grain pasta products for schools.

Despite the challenges, 90 percent of schools are meeting the nutrition standards established in 2012, USDA says.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a group focused on ending childhood obesity, points to several success stories at schools around the country — like the eight new veggie-based soups on offer at Dover High School in Delaware.

"As we soon close out the school year, we should be celebrating — not rolling back — the great progress that schools have made toward implementing the USDA's school nutrition standards," Howell Wechsler of the alliance says in a statement.

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Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.