House GOP Bill Would Roll Back School Lunch Rules

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WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans are proposing to let some schools opt out of healthier school lunch and breakfast programs if they are losing money.

A GOP spending bill for agriculture and food programs released Monday would allow schools to apply for waivers if they have a net loss on school food programs for a six month period.

Championed by first lady Michelle Obama, the new standards have been phased in over the last two school years, with more changes coming in 2014. The rules set fat, calorie, sugar and sodium limits on foods in the lunch line and beyond.

The first lady held a call to rally supporters of the healthier food rules Monday as a House subcommittee is expected to consider the bill on Tuesday.

While many schools have had success putting the rules in place, others have said they are too restrictive and costly. Schools pushing for changes say limits on sodium and requirements for whole grains have proven particularly difficult, while some school officials say kids are throwing fruits and vegetables they are required to take in the trash.

The House Appropriations Committee said in a release that the waiver language is in response to requests from schools.

The School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutrition directors and companies that sell food to schools, endorsed the provision Monday and said that schools need more room to make their own decisions. President Leah Schmidt said the group supports the waiver as a temporary solution until Congress considers renewal of a school foods law that expires in 2015.

“School meal programs need more flexibility to plan menus that increase student consumption of healthy choices while limiting waste,” Schmidt.

The School Nutrition Association says that almost half of school meal programs reported declines in revenue in the 2012-13 school year and 90 percent said food costs were up.

Nutrition advocates and other supporters of the rules say it will take some time for schools to adjust and the House proposal is overly broad. Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says the House Republicans are using a “hacksaw rather than a scalpel” to try and solve problems some schools are having.

Wootan argues that there may be other factors in play such as enrollment or food costs if a lunch program is losing money.

“It’s a shame that the House Republicans are taking a step backward and allowing schools to serve more unhealthy food to children,” she said.

The House bill would provide money for Agriculture Department programs and Food and Drug Administration programs. It would also make tweaks to another nutrition program championed by the Obama administration, proposing to allow white potatoes to be accepted as part of USDA’s Women, Infants and Children program.

The WIC program gives vouchers for healthy and nutritious foods to low-income pregnant and nursing mothers and children. The Agriculture Department does not allow the purchase of white potatoes to be subsidized as part of WIC because they say people already eat enough of them.

That rule has angered the potato industry and members of Congress from potato-growing states, who have fought the potato exclusion.

A Senate subcommittee was also scheduled to mark up its version of the food and farm spending bill Tuesday but that panel has not yet released its language.

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