By Lydia Wheeler
First lady Michelle Obama’s prized healthy school lunch regulations are facing a fresh attack from the GOP-controlled Congress.
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) announced plans Monday to introduce legislation that would relax the U.S. Department of Agriculture rules for schools when it comes to serving whole grain products and reducing sodium levels.
The measure is the opening salvo in a battle between the Obama administration and the new GOP-led Congress, which will consider reauthorizing the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 this year.
“We’ve started to get across that we’ve got to have flexibility,” Hoeven said to attendees of the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) 2015 Legislative Action Conference Monday in Washington. “We can’t have a federal one-size-fits-all mandate.”
But Hoeven said he’s not fighting the administration’s regulations outright.
“We all want to work with the spirit of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act,” he said. “But we’ve got to have the flexibility to do it right.”
Under Hoeven’s legislation, schools would be allowed to revert back to 2012 standards, which require at least half of all grains served in a school breakfast and lunch to be whole grain rich. The standard now is for 100 percent of all grains offered to be whole grain rich.
The bill would also prevent the USDA from requiring further sodium reductions in school meals below the current level, which took effect in July 2014.
Under the mandate, schools have to keep sodium levels in school lunches for the week below 1,230 milligrams for kindergarten through fifth grade, 1,360 mg for sixth to eighth grade, and 1,420 mg for ninth to 12th grade.
Though he said it is too early to announce any co-sponsors, Hoeven said he’s confident his legislation will gain bipartisan support.
As evidence, he pointed to the Sensible School Lunch Act, a bill he introduced in 2013 to prohibit the Secretary of Agriculture from establishing a maximum quantity of grains, meat or meat alternatives that can be served in a meal.
He said the bill was on track to pass, but before Congress could vote, the USDA made the regulatory changes on its own.
If Hoeven’s bill fails to pass as part of the reauthorization of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, he said, he would seek to make the changes via language in legislation needed to fund the Agriculture Department. That route, however, would only impose the changes for a single fiscal year.
“If I can get it in reauthorization, then it’s permanent law,” he said.
The school lunch regulations have been a lightning rod for criticism from Republicans who say the healthier meals — a central component of the first lady’s Let’s Move campaign to fight childhood obesity — are inedible and driving up costs for schools where fewer students are participating in lunch programs.
The first lady’s press office did not answer requests for comment on Hoeven’s bill.
Last year, she pushed back against a GOP-led effort to allow some schools to opt out of the tougher standards altogether.
“The last thing we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health,” she said then. “Now is not the time to roll back everything we have worked for.”
The USDA estimates that the new school lunch standards will cost school districts $1.2 billion in additional food and labor expenses this year. Roughly 1.4 million fewer students are choosing to eat the school provided lunch.
According to an SNA survey, more than half of all schools offering school meal programs expect to lose money. Only 18 percent expect to break even.
The nonprofit has been pushing Congress to adopt more relaxed standards and has proposed increasing per-meal reimbursement for school breakfasts and lunches by 35 cents.
Hoeven’s announcement comes as the Food and Nutrition Service finalized a rule that institutes hiring standards for the state and local school nutrition program directors, and requires all personnel in the school nutrition programs to complete training or annual continuing education courses.
“Our own programs have become so complicated that you cannot implement them without providing training to employees,” said SNA President Julia Bauscher.
The USDA contends that it’s working to help schools better meet the healthier standards by offering no-salt-added foods and administering funding for new equipment.
In the coming weeks, Cindy Long, child nutrition director for the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, said schools will be awarded $25 million in grants to help them pay for slicers to more efficiently cut fruits and vegetables.
School nutrition professionals at the SNA conference maintained that they are trying to change the palates of children by offering healthier foods like whole grain breads and pastas, but it’s not the same food being served at home.
“We all want to believe that parents are buying whole grain bread, but they’re not,” said Kristen Hennessey, director of food and nutrition services at Plymouth-Canton Community Schools in Michigan. “So they get to school and right away it’s ‘yuck’ because it’s not what they’re used to.”
Teresa Brown, a child nutrition director at St. Charles Parish Public Schools in Louisiana, said she has had a difficult time finding a whole grain biscuit that the kids in her district will eat for breakfast that also fits with the required sodium standards.
“We’re from the south and biscuits are very important to our food culture,” she said. “490 milligrams of sodium is the best we could find.”
But under the healthy school lunch rules, Brown can only serve 540 mg of sodium at breakfast for the week in grades K-5.
“We introduced a honey corn biscuit this year,” she said. “Our students were very upset.”