Hoeven: Flexible School Nutrition Requirements Important as Work Begins to Reauthorize Programs

At Hearing, Senator Cites Difficulty of Current Whole Grain Requirements

WASHINGTON – At a hearing of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee today, Senator John Hoeven pressed for greater flexibility in school nutrition programs as work begins to reauthorize child nutrition programs in 2015. Hoeven cited new whole grain requirements as an example of a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition that does not work on the ground. Hoeven was joined at the hearing by School Nutrition Association President-Elect Julia Bauscher, who represents nearly 55,000 school nutritionists and testified to regional difficulties to meet the requirements.

“We all want our children to be healthy and to have nutritious meals. As we work to reauthorize our nutrition programs, we need to make sure we provide enough flexibility for our schools to meet the requirements,” said Hoeven. “A one-size-fits-all approach to school nutrition rules ignores the challenges our schools face to acquire foods that not only meet these requirements, but that students will eat.”

When questioned about the need for greater flexibility, Bauscher cited regional difficulties finding 100 percent whole grain products that meet regional needs and said some food service directors are unable to acquire foods from their distributors that meet the requirements.

Hoeven has worked to provide greater flexibility in serving whole grains in the current federal school lunch program. New rules require that the whole grain requirement in the school lunch and breakfast programs be increased from 50 percent to 100 percent of total grains by July 1, 2014. In June, Hoeven filed an amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations bill to modify the requirements and provide greater flexibility. The provision allows the USDA Secretary to grant a one year waiver to any school that is currently experiencing hardship due to increased costs or difficulty in procuring the necessary items.

Hoeven sponsored the Sensible School Lunch Act, which provides school districts with greater flexibility to meet the nutritional needs of all students, after hearing from North Dakota students who were left feeling hungry due to new, strict school nutrition standards enacted at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year. The rule attempted to curb obesity by strictly limiting calories, protein and grains for all students without any flexibility to meet the needs of athletes or others whose dietary needs do not fit the guidelines.

In December 2012, USDA made temporary changes to the School Lunch Program in response to a letter led by Hoeven and Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas and signed by other senators. In response to the senators’ request, the USDA temporarily lifted its strict limit on grains and starches as well as protein to give schools more flexibility. The upper cap on total calories remains in place; however, the modification was provided only through the 2013-2014 school year.

Hoeven and Pryor then wrote bipartisan legislation to make these changes permanent. The senators’ legislation, the Sensible School Lunch Act, has broad, bipartisan support and the backing of the national School Nutrition Association. In response to their legislation, the USDA administratively made the changes permanent on January 3, 2014. The legislation was on track to pass this month prior to the USDA’s agreement to permanently modify the rule.