By Mary Clare Jalonick, Associated Press
WASHINGTON >> Add another item to lawmakers’ busy fall agenda: Congress must decide whether to do battle again with first lady Michelle Obama over school lunches with more whole grains and less salt.
Last year, school food rules pitted Mrs. Obama against House Republicans seeking temporary exemptions for some schools. The first lady declared that she would fight “to the bitter end” to make sure kids have good nutrition, and the GOP eventually abandoned the exemptions push.
Now, Republicans are hoping to find bipartisan compromise on the rules and also dollars for the nation’s child nutrition programs before the law expires Sept. 30. So far, however, negotiations have failed to produce a bill in either the House or the Senate.
Lawmakers may not seek an immediate extension if the law expires. The school food rules won’t change unless Congress takes action, and the Agriculture Department says other programs would continue to operate as long as Congress passes a budget this fall.
The rules phased in since 2012 set fat, calorie, sugar and sodium limits on foods in the lunch line and beyond. Schools have long been required to follow government nutrition rules if they accept federal reimbursements for free and reduced-price meals for low-income students, but the new standards are stricter.
While many schools have had success putting the rules in place, many Republicans say the standards have posed too many challenges for school nutrition officials who must balance serving healthy foods with getting kids to eat their lunches.
The School Nutrition Association, a group of school nutrition directors, has pushed Congress to ease the whole grain and sodium standards and eliminate the stipulation that all children buying a full lunch take a fruit or vegetable. They are also seeking a higher federal reimbursement rate.
Democrats, including Mrs. Obama, argue that the standards are working and should be left as they are.
Beyond school lunch, child nutrition programs expiring at the end of the month include the Agriculture Department’s Women, Infants and Children program for new and expecting mothers and their children, summer feeding programs, and other government institutional food aid.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., is negotiating with the panel’s top Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, in an attempt to get a bipartisan bill. He said this week that the sodium standards are a priority.
The 2012 standards already have lowered salt levels in school meals, with even lower sodium levels set to start in two years. Some schools have said they will have to take popular items off their menus if the 2017 levels go into effect.
Jessica Shelly, food service director at Cincinnati’s urban public schools, says the new standards would mean she couldn’t serve soy sauce or hot sauce with some items, condiments that have helped her get kids to eat healthier foods like greens.
“We need to take care of that,” Roberts said of the upcoming sodium rules. “You are serving kids food that some people would like to mandate that they eat, but they are simply not eating it.”
After the GOP bid for temporary exemptions failed last year, Congress passed legislation that would allow schools to request waivers from some of the whole grain requirements and put off the 2017 sodium standards until further scientific research proves it’s beneficial. The Senate bill could make those changes permanent.
Stabenow seems unwilling to go along with that, saying Congress has already compromised. She says higher sodium levels mean more children are at risk of high blood pressure.
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, is also negotiating a bill and has signaled he wants changes. But that panel has not given a timeline for any action.
Democrats and the administration are hoping time is on their side as students, school officials and food companies have now had three years to adjust to the healthier standards.
“That message is beginning to penetrate and resonate,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview. “It’s a different climate.”
Mrs. Obama has continued to champion the standards’ success, but she has tempered her tone somewhat as Congress works on the issue.
“We all need to work together on this issue, because we know that issues like child nutrition, it’s not about politics,” she said at an event this week. “This is about giving our children a fair shot in life.”
As Congress decides what to do, school officials want a resolution. Sal Valenza, food service director for West New York, New Jersey, says he supports most of the rules but believes the upcoming sodium standards are too restrictive. Most of all, though, he wants more certainty as he plans his schools’ meals.
“I would like it to stop being a debate,” he said.