Senate Panel to Discuss School Lunch Compromise

More that a year after Congress first delayed upcoming rules on salt and whole grains, a new agreement takes the rougher edges off the school lunch program while preserving current limits on sodium. But it opens the door for a lobbying frenzy at USDA on "a la carte" foods.

UPDATE: The Senate Agriculture committee approved the bill on a voice vote.

Could peace be breaking out in the lunchroom?

More than a year after Congress used the Omnibus Appropriations Bill of 2014 to stall limits for salt and whole grains, a new deal is bringing longer term solutions for both in the National School Lunch Program.

The deal, reached among the White House, members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, the US Department of Agriculture, and the School Nutrition Association, addresses aspects of the program that most rankled its opponents—food waste and lack of flexibility—while preserving limits on sugar and the current limit on sodium.

The Senate Agriculture Committee is set to take up the agreement today.

Updated in 2010—and under attack since it took effect in 2012-2013 school year—the lunch program is a symbol of First Lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to combat childhood obesity and rising rates of diabetes.

For fans of the program, its’ been an unqualified success. A study published earlier this month in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that middle- and high school students from an urban district made healthier food choices after the changes were enacted.

However, that finding overlooks a key complaint of critics: students must put fruits and vegetables on their tray whether or not they plan to eat them. In suburban districts, where students have plenty to eat at home, reports of “plate waste” have soared.

For conservatives, the lunch program has become a symbol of government intervention at its worst; with Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey complaining about it this week as he campaigned for president, even though he previously praised the idea of keeping weight off when you’re young.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents cafeteria managers, sought changes that make more children willing to eat lunch at school and finish what’s on their plates. SNA has also sought flexibility on moving forward on even stricter sodium and grain limits, arguing that sodium levels below the targets achieved on July 1, 2014, would push popular, healthy items off the menu. This was the focus on Congress’ action last year.

Elements of the compromise include:

· Sodium: Schools will not have to meet new targets until July 1, 2019. That year, a study will determine whether limits set to take effect in 2022 can be supported by scientific research, and whether food companies can make products that meet the 2022 limits.

· Whole Grains: The compromise allows 20% of grains in school meals to be other than whole grain rich, which will allow occasional servings of white rich, biscuits, or corn tortillas, which may appeal to regional diets. None of those food met current standards.

· A la carte foods: Foods that compete with the school lunch have been a major focus of reformers, and have been severely limited in recent years. But the SNA says these foods helped balance cafeteria budgets, and as long as they’re healthy, they should be permitted. The deal creates a working group to recommend to USDA a list of permitted foods. Look for this to be a lobbying frenzy over the next year.

While SNA achieved a big win on the a la carte food committee, it did not get a rollback on putting fruits and vegetables on kids’ trays. Instead, there is language to clarify whether students can share fruits and vegetables once they sit down together. After all, isn’t trading as old as school lunch itself?