School-lunch regs expected to be extended

The chairman of the Senate committee involved in reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act announced yesterday that a key step in pushing through an updated bill has been delayed indefinitely. The action, coming close to the Act’s Sept. 30 expiration date, increases the chances of the measure being extended rather than reauthorized, freezing stipulations the School Nutrition Association has targeted as unreasonable burdens in need of change.

Even before the delay, the SNA saw little hope the changes it seeks will be adopted and approved by the Sept. 30 deadline. 

“Reauthorization will come and go before [Congress] has time to do anything,” Cathy Schuchart, the SNA’s vice president of government affairs and media relations, said Friday. “People are thinking there will just be an extension because there’s not that much time left, based on just looking at the calendar.”

The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, led by Pat Roberts (R.-Kan.), had scheduled a markup of a reauthorization bill on Thursday, Sept. 17. But he issued a statement yesterday that said three other bills, all unrelated to foodservice, would be marked up instead. He did not say when the child nutrition legislation would be put through the process—in essence, a read-through during which committee members can propose amendments.

Until the public sees a copy of a draft bill post-markup, Schuchart says, the SNA will not know whether Congress will consider the changes recommended by the organization, which represents school foodservice professionals nationwide.

Those requested changes include maintaining the Target 1 sodium reduction levels of 1,230-1,420 mg. and suspending further decreases; restoring the initial requirement that at least half of grains offered must be whole grain rich instead of all grains; and allowing operators to decide whether students are required to take a fruit or vegetable as part of a reimbursable meal.

That last position in particular has gained visibility in recent weeks. A study in the September/October issue of Public Health Reports found that students choose larger servings of fruit or vegetables under the new school lunch rules—an average of .89 of a cup versus .69 before the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act—they ate less of it and threw out a higher portion. Students were consuming .45 cups and wasting .39 cups when required to take a fruit or vegetable, as opposed to consuming .51 cups and wasting .25 cups before the requirement.

Target 2 for sodium—levels of 935-1,080 mg.—come into effect in 2017 and are front-of-mind for operators; 68 percent surveyed in the SNA’s 2015 School Nutrition Trends Report said they were “very concerned” about the availability of foods that meet these levels.

Schuchart says inaction on this issue in particular leaves operators in a state of flux. “There has to be a lot of reformulations, new products, taste tests with kids,” she says. “The longer it takes for something to get resolved, the window closes more on the operators and everybody being able to identify these products.”

But what about the worst-case scenario—if the Act is allowed to expire?

“In the short term, it won’t be allowed to expire—Congress would pass an extension for a certain amount of time, typically the amount of time it’ll take to get a bill actually passed,” Schuchart says. Meanwhile, “We’re all just kind of doing the old hurry-up-and-wait on Thursday to see what happens.”

“The most wonderful thing we could imagine is that they listen to constituents, [especially concerning] modifications and flexibility,” she says.

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