The debate over school lunch standards is heating up.
Standards for whole wheat and sodium levels are the focus of recent funding proposals under the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act.

With the Sept. 30 deadline for the reauthorization of the school nutrition standards established by the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) looming, groups are lining up on both sides of the debate to effect change. On one side are officials who want the standards established to remain in effect and continue to develop as laid out in the legislation, and on the other side are those who want the standards related to whole grain and reduced sodium to be eliminated.

On July 14, Rep. Robert B. Aderholt of Alabama and chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies, introduced HR 3049, a bill that would appropriate funds through fiscal 2016. As part of the proposed legislation, the Secretary of Agriculture will allow states to be exempted from the whole grains standard published in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. In order to qualify for an exemption, school food authorities will have to demonstrate hardship in procuring specific whole grain products that are acceptable to the students and compliant with the whole grain-rich requirements. What may qualify as a hardship was left undefined in the proposed bill.

The House legislation further stated no money may be appropriated for implementation of the HHFKA sodium reduction standard beyond the first target or until the latest scientific research establishes the reduction is beneficial for children.

On July 16, Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, chair of the Senate’s agriculture appropriations subcommittee, introduced S. 1800. The Senate version of the proposed legislation is similar to that introduced in the House.

The language contained in both the House and Senate appropriations bills is similar to the language in a bill proposed by Sens. John Hoeven of North Dakota and Angus King of Maine on April 30 called the Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act. That bill was referred to committee and has not progressed further.

The School Nutrition Association supports both measures included in the appropriations bills. The SNA would like to see the whole grains mandate restored to the initial requirement that at least half of grains offered through school lunch and breakfast programs be whole grain-rich.

“The current mandate that all grains offered be whole grain-rich has increased waste and cost, while contributing to the decline in student lunch participation,” the association said. “Students are eating more whole grain bread and buns, but schools are struggling with limited availability of specialty whole grain items and regional preferences for certain refined grains such as bagels or tortillas.”

With regard to advancing the sodium reduction targets, the SNA cited a statement from the Institute of Medicine to explain its position.

“The Institute of Medicine warned that ‘reducing the sodium content of school meals as specified and in a way that is well accepted by students will present major challenges and may not be possible,’” the SNA said.

The US Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for implementing and enforcing the school nutrition standards, has worked to show that standards are working. The agency has cited Food and Nutrition Service data that shows 95 percent of schools are successfully meeting the updated meal standards.

Data provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showed that between 2012 and 2014 there has been an uptick in students making healthier food choices. For example, 66 percent of students in 2014 chose to take fruit with their lunch vs. 54 percent in 2012. The percentage of students eating more of the vegetables they are served surged from 46 percent in 2012 to 64 percent in 2014.

“Updated healthy school meal standards were created based on the expert advice of pediatricians and nutrition experts and are being widely embraced by students, parents, educators, and nutrition professionals,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “We are very encouraged that 95 percent of schools are now successfully providing more nutritious meals to their students.

“We are working with schools to provide funding, training and flexibility so that 100 percent of schools will be able to successfully serve children healthier meals. Now that we are so close to the finish line, it would be unwise to roll back healthy meal standards just as they are beginning to work to ensure our kids have access to the balanced, nutritious food doctors recommend.”