Advocates who support school nutrition rules on whole grains, fruits and vegetables, along with others arguing for a retreat from nutrition program standards spoke Wednesday to a congressional committee.

The more-than-two-hour-long hearing was part of the larger debate on re-authorizing school food programs. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which governs nine federal nutrition programs and impacts millions of children in mostly low-income households, expires in September.

Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, which governs nine federal nutrition programs and impacts millions of children in mostly low-income households, is up for review in September.

The theme of Wednesday’s gathering of the House Education and the Workforce Committee was flexibility, but that meant different things to different participants.

Committee Chairman John Kline began the hearing telling about his recent visit to Prior Lake High School in Savage, Minnesota. He said school authorities and students both told him portion sizes were too small and that participation had dropped off.  The school — where 7 percent of students are eligible for the national school lunch program — is contemplating dropping its participation.

“As we reauthorize these programs, we have to provide more flexibility at the state and local levels,” Kline said. “Those working in our schools and cafeterias recognize that this has to be a priority. Even students understand the urgent need for more flexibility.”

schoolfoodThe president of the School Nutrition Association, Julia Bauscher, testified that her group, which represents 55,000 cafeteria professionals, would like to see fruit, vegetable and 100 percent whole grain serving  requirements rolled back.

Duke Storen, senior director of advocacy and research for Share Our Strength, a nonprofit focused on ending child hunger, asked legislators to streamline red tape for community groups and schools who partner in summer meal programs. He also asked for increased flexibility in how students receive and are served food during off-school times.

About 32 million kids eat federally assisted school lunches. Of the students who eat lunch at school, more than 20 million are from low-income families and receive free or reduced-price meals

The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 required the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update nutrition standards for school lunch, breakfast and Smart Snacks, which are meals, snacks and beverages served and sold in schools outside of the federal program.

Critics of the new standards, which went into effect in 2012, have said more children are throwing food away because they were being forced to eat more nutritious, but less appetizing, meals.

But a recent study in the journal Childhood Obesity disproved that contention. The study found that the percentage of students choosing fruit in the cafeteria increased to 66 percent, from 54 percent when the rules went into effect.

The study, by the Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, reported that students ate 84 percent of their entrees, not including fruit, up from 71 percent.

Kristy Anderson, government relations manager for the American Heart Association, said 93 percent of the schools in the country are meeting the standards and should be given the chance to succeed. The AHA believes the nutrition standards are working and should not be rolled back.

Talk about new nutrition standards first began in 2004 when the Bush administration asked the Institute of Medicine to look at the issue.

The IOM’s update came in 2008, and schools then began the conversations around changing what they served.

Areas such as the Dallas Independent School District, Norfolk Public Schools in Virginia and the El Monte Public Schools in Texas all began with small, gradual changes, and many of them faced issues with participation, procurement or revenue.

“Now, their programs are robust,” said Anderson, who was not a speaker during Wednesday’s hearing. “Participation has increased. Revenues are in the black. Their kids are healthier. If you stay the course and continue to work hard, the tide will turn.”

A poll released this past fall showed 72 percent of parents favor the national school meal and snack standards. The survey, by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the American Heart Association, found that support cut across racial and political lines, with 68 percent of whites, 85 percent of Hispanics and 91 percent of African-Americans supporting the standards. It said 56 percent of Republicans, 71 percent of independents and 84 percent of Democrats also were in favor.

Virginia’s first lady, Dorothy McAuliffe, who has made childhood nutrition a central part of her work in that state, told the committee that easing the regulations shouldn’t be an option.

“I understand the difficulties of working with pennies and nickels and dimes a day to feed our children. That retreat is not an option analogy is spot on … We don’t give up, we don’t retreat,” she said. “We add creativity and extra work and urgency to our mission. It’s tough and it’s being done. There are success stories out there.”

Chairman Kline wrapped up the hearing by pointing to comments about wealthy schools opting out of the program and about discussion on nutrition programs and how they deal with hungry, malnourished and obese children.

“We’re dealing with what I think is sometimes a very confusing subject. … This isn’t just about poor kids and wealthy kids, it’s about all our kids,” Kline said, before quipping: ““I’ve been sitting here contemplating what a whole grain tortilla would actually taste like. And I’m guessing not that good. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

During Kline’s visit to Minnesota earlier this month he declined to eat in the school lunchroom, according to the Prior Lake American.

“Too healthy,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.

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Photos courtesy of Dallas Independent School District