School nutrition standards under fire again, threshold for free, reduced meals increased

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Congressional pressure on federal agencies to back down from nutrition policies created under the Obama Administration continues to mount with the standards for school meals now in the cross-hairs. 

In a letter sent to the US Department of Agriculture April 6, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., asked USDA to provide “regulatory relief from rigid school meal standards,” which he says are difficult for schools to meet and results in meals that students do not want to eat.

“For the past several years, I have heard concerns from school children, parents, teachers, administrators and school foodservice providers in Kansas and across the country regarding the challenges of complying with the rigid school food standards” instituted as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, Sen. Roberts wrote.

The standards, which influence what can be served at breakfast and lunch by schools, were phased in since 2012 and required more servings of fruit, vegetables and whole grains and less sodium and saturated fat.

While these changes are well-intentioned, some school nutritionists argued during the implementation that the higher cost and lack of familiarity with whole grains, for example, were complicating school efforts to comply with the requirements for whole grains. Similarly, produce also often is more expensive.

Over the years, several attempts and compromises have been put forward to reduce the burden on schools, but ultimately Roberts says the requirements “have limited flexibility,” have “led to declining participation in the program, increased food waste in school cafeterias and caused confusion regarding what foods can be used in fundraisers and extracurricular activities.”

Likely fueled by hope that the new administration and political appointees at USDA will be more likely to amend the requirements than previous leadership, Roberts asks USDA in his letter “to act administratively and provide immediate relief from certain egregious aspects of the standards, particularly in regards to the rapidly approaching sodium limits and the dairy and whole grain requirements.”

The letter was sent the same day that Roberts asked President Trump’s nominee to head FDA to consider postponing the deadline for upcoming changes to the Nutrition Facts Panel, including a line detailing added sugar.

He argued the delay would give FDA time to distribute guidance related to the Nutrition Facts Panel changes and allow USDA to publish GMO labeling guidelines so that all changes to product labels could be done simultaneously.

Threshold for free, reduced meals raised

Regardless of whether USDA acts on Roberts' request, the agency is tightening the eligibility requirements for free and reduced school meals, according to a notice published in the Federal Register.

The annual adjustment would raise the income threshold for households whose children qualify for free and reduced meals.

The change, which will go into effect July 1, was determined by multiplying the year 2017 Federal income poverty guidelines by 1.3 and 1.85 respectively and rounding up to the next whole dollar.

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