Congress Eases School Lunch Restrictions

One school is challenging the current model of school lunch. Watch the five-minute California Matters episode about it here.

Everyone has their favorite traditions during this time of the year. Some enjoy the scrumptious Thanksgiving meal, others are into the drunken debauchery of a New Year's Eve party. And who doesn't get a kick out of wrapped presents under a Christmas tree? My own favorite tradition around this time of year, though, is a new one: Watching the looming threat of a government shutdown.

This year, it seems like it's going to be a dud. Congress has apparently reached an agreement on the $1.1 trillion spending bill before the deadline. Oh, well. See you next year. But that doesn't mean there isn't plenty to parse in the enormous spending bill. Especially when it comes to how the government handles school lunches.

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First, a little backstory: Back in early 2012, the USDA issued new rules regarding what can be served in schools to students. The intentions of the standards were, first and foremost, to make sure students aren't being fed completely unhealthy items. They were to go into effect that year on July 1st, and slowly be implemented piecemeal over a three-year period.

However, not everyone was pleased about the rules. Big Food lobbyists (particularly those in the potato industry) didn't like that new sodium limits would push out items like French fries. And seeing as the entire project was pushed forth by First Lady Michelle Obama, there was opposition from Republicans for no reason other than standard partisan politics. So, it was really only a matter of time before Congress stepped in and tweaked the school regulations a bit.

And with the new budget, tweak they did.

Some of the changes are a slight easing of restrictions. For example, instead of schools needing to make sure that 100% of grains offered are whole grains, Congress lowered that threshold down to 50%. So, that's one area schools can relax about.

Another area of regulation reduction -- and this one's big -- is that schools no longer have to reduce sodium content in meals. The 2012 standards called for the reduction of sodium in meals over a 10-year period, with targets hit at the two- and four-year markers. (It got more specific from there; reducing the upper salt limit in mozzarella cheese from two percent to 1.6 percent, the amount of sodium in blended cheeses from 450 milligrams per one-ounce serving to between 200 and 300, things like that.) The point was, students shouldn't be eating as much sodium as they have been, and here's a way to help.

Except, well, you can go ahead and throw out that section entirely:

[W]hen it comes to salty french fries or pizza, schools may get more time to dial back the sodium content, thanks to a provision that could postpone a mandate on sodium reduction that's scheduled to take effect in 2017. Lawmakers say further reductions on salt should be predicated on the latest scientific evidence.

No one's quite sure what to make of that "latest scientific evidence" bit, as there have been plenty of published studies that point to high sodium intake as harmful. If that's the barrier for reinstatement of the requirements, it's just a matter of time. Which means, essentially, that all the lobbyists did was buy a few extra years of profits. Unfortunately, they've purchased it with the health of children.

The tweaks in the budget are not all bad news, though. A previous version of the bill allowed schools to opt-out of the nutritional requirements entirely if they were operating at a net loss. That's gone:

[T]he opt-out waiver was dropped after first lady Michelle Obama and nutrition advocates made a stink about the proposed rollbacks.

So, that's something. Although, perhaps trying to make sure school kids get healthier foods during lunch shouldn't be referred to as "making a stink."

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