A massive year-end spending bill released this week doesn’t allow schools to opt out of healthier school meal standards championed by first lady Michelle Obama, as House Republicans had sought. But it would ease standards that require more whole grains in school foods.
The bill also would put off rules to lower sodium in school meals. Those rules were supposed kick in by 2017.
Some school nutrition directors have lobbied for a break from the standards, which have been phased in since 2012, saying the rules have proven to be costly and restrictive. Some kids don’t like the meals, either. House Republicans have said the rules are an overreach, and have fought to ease them.
As the debate escalated this summer, Michelle Obama said she would fight “to the bitter end” to make sure kids have good nutrition in schools. The White House did not have immediate comment on the language in the spending bill.
Many schools have complained that the whole grain standards are a challenge, especially when preparing popular pastas, biscuits and tortillas. Food service companies don’t have as many options in the whole wheat varieties, and preparation can be more difficult, especially with some whole wheat pastas that can be mushy and hard to cook.
The spending bill, expected to become law before the end of the year, would allow schools that can demonstrate they have had difficulty finding and affording acceptable whole grain products like pastas and breads to be exempted from 2014 standards requiring all grain products to be mostly whole grain. Those schools would still have to abide by previous guidelines that half of their grain products be mostly whole grain.
The final language is a compromise between the House’s attempt to allow schools to opt out of the standards for a year and a Senate provision that called for more study on the whole grains issue.
In a statement after the bill was released, Alabama Rep. Robert Aderholt, the Republican chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees agriculture issues, said the whole grains waiver is “the best bill we that are going to get” with Democrats still controlling the Senate. He expressed optimism that the GOP may get more of what it wants when the party controls both chambers next year.
While many schools have implemented the new standards successfully, others have said they’re not working.
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