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Don’t weaken school lunch standards, supporters say

By Daniel Gaitan

New York (Reuters) - Supporters of White House-backed nutritional standards for school lunch programs say a proposed bill that exempts some school districts could unfairly burden children.

Starting in 2012, schools with federally subsidized lunch programs began adding more fruits, vegetables and whole-grain foods to meals.

But critics, including some Republicans and the School Nutrition Association (SNA), a lobby group, say local school districts need more time to adjust and too much of that healthful food ends up in school trash bins, often uneaten.

In May, the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee approved a 2015 agriculture budget that would allow some districts to opt out of the nutritional standards if they found it too costly to comply. The U.S. Department of Agriculture would establish a waiver process for districts whose lunch programs operated at a net loss over six months.

Nationally, more than 30 million children participate in school lunch programs each day. According to the SNA, some 1 million students have opted out of school lunches in light of the stricter standards.

In a position statement published online, the SNA says, “Under the new nutrition standards implemented in 2012, school meal programs have experienced increased costs and administrative burdens, while struggling with student acceptance of new menu items and increased plate waste.”

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee, told Reuters Health he believes complaints about the stricter standards are partly a normal reaction to change.

“Changing eating habits is very difficult,” he said. “The harsher the comment, the more likely that that person has never supported anything with the president or first lady.”

The rules are a major part of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, an effort aiming to help reduce the number of overweight and obese children across the nation.

Farr sponsored an amendment that would have removed the waiver from the agriculture budget, but it was defeated 29 to 22, along party lines. “I think this is an empowerment fight,” he added. “The majority of Americans know we have eating problems in this country, and feeding problems in the country, and they want to see a change.”

Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, told Reuters Health she believes recent reports of plate waste are greatly exaggerated.

“We don’t see evidence that kids are throwing away uneaten food. What we know is that if you were going to go back five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, or even into the future, kids probably don’t eat everything on their plate,” she said. "Plate waste is not any worse because of the new standards."

In a statement issued after Farr’s amendment was defeated, she wrote, “By giving special interests a seat at the school lunch table, some members of Congress are putting politics before the health of our children. Any attempt to suspend or abolish school meal requirements will undermine parents’ efforts to keep their kids healthy and put another generation of children on the highway to heart disease and stroke.”

Brown told Reuters Health that children deserve healthier food. “We have to get the food served at schools to be at the level where kids have a fighting chance to grow up without having diseases that used to be adult diseases. The opposition is creating an environment where children will be put at risk.”

The House is expected to take up the bill in the coming weeks.

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