Kentucky Health News
The massive 2015 spending bill signed by President Obama Dec. 16 includes a provision to help schools struggling with the whole-grain and sodium requirements that are part of the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act. It did not allow, as House Republicans had hoped, schools to opt out of the healthier school meal standards if they lost money on meal programs over a six-month period.
Beginning with the 2014 school year, schools had to serve 100 percent whole grains in their meals and snacks, and also follow the first restrictions on sodium, or salt. The sodium restrictions were scheduled to get progressively stricter over the years, with the next move set for 2017.
The law allows schools that demonstrate the rule is a “hardship” to continue serving 50 percent whole grains. It also says sodium standards cannot be tightened until the “latest scientific research establishes the reduction is beneficial for children,” Mary Clare Jalonick reports for The Associated Press.
Some schools say they have had trouble complying with these requirements because many of the affordable whole grain pastas have proven difficult to cook en masse and the whole-grain versions of many foods, like biscuits and tortillas, simply don’t taste the same.
On salt, schools say budgeting the allowed amounts among meals, snacks and a la carte items is often a challenge. The issue hit Anderson County schools earlier this year when they couldn’t find a low-sodium ketchup; their solution was to not offer ketchup. Parent and student complaints prompted a reversal of that move, but to do that, sodium had to be removed elsewhere in the menu.
The new law won’t have much effect on Fayette County Schools, Director of School Nutrition Michelle Coker said in a telephone interview. “Basically, we use 100 percent whole grains in everything,” she said. “But there are products, like tortilla shells, that aren’t as flavorful and this gives us some flexibility.”
Fayette County has transitioned slowly to whole grains over the last five to six years to help students adjust to them, Coker said, and as whole-grain products have become “tastier” the transition has not been an issue.
“Whole grain pasta products have come a long way,” Coker said. “Three to four years ago they were dark, but now it is difficult to tell the difference. Kentucky has really good vendors.”
Coker, a registered dietitian, welcomed the possible delay in lower salt limits, saying most students are active and involved in sports and shouldn’t need such low sodium restrictions. “These kids are growing and need electrolytes,” she said.
The School Nutrition Association, a group that represents both school nutrition directors and the food companies that produce foods for schools, wanted even deeper rollbacks than the spending bill included, but said it “strongly supports” the budget-bill language.
Alabama Rep. Robert Aderholt, chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees nutrition issues, said the whole-grains waiver is “the best bill that we are going to get” as long as Democrats are in control the Senate, Jalonick reports.
Republicans will control both houses of Congress next year, so the battle is far from over, and the overall law governing child nutrition policy, including school lunches, expires next year and will require legislation to be renewed, Jalonick notes.
First Lady Michelle Obama, champion for improving school’s nutrition and decreasing child obesity, said this summer that she would fight “to the bitter end” to make sure kids have good nutrition in schools.