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Originally published Friday, June 13, 2014 at 6:42 PM

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Showdown ahead over healthful school meals

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said a Republican plan to offer schools waivers from federal nutrition standards will bring back more sugar, fat and sodium to cafeterias.

Seattle Times Washington bureau


WASHINGTON — Last year they battled over how much to help poor Americans afford groceries.

Now Democrats and Republicans in Congress are waging another food fight, this time over nutritional standards for students.

House Republicans this week punted on a vote on the 2015 agriculture spending bill containing a controversial provision to allow money-losing school cafeterias to opt out of federal standards for healthful meals. That delayed a showdown until the next few weeks, when the appropriations bill is expected on the floor.

If the measure passes, the nation’s schools will be “going back to old ways of doing business that will result in more fat, more sugar and more sodium,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview Friday.

Vilsack’s media outreach was part of the Obama administration’s push back against giving one-year waivers on the meal standards. Some districts have complained that revamping menus to include more fruits and vegetables and whole grains and to lower calories has been difficult and turned off picky eaters.

Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, R-Ala., who chairs the House subcommittee on agriculture appropriations, has said the waiver is needed because the new regulations “are far-reaching and have come too fast for local school districts to swallow.” He said the waiver simply gives financially struggling schools an extra 12 months to comply.

First lady Michelle Obama, architect of the Let’s Move campaign to reduce childhood obesity, has accused Republicans of shortchanging kids and ignoring scientific advice.

Vilsack said the partisan differences are a continuation of last year’s political stalemate over the farm bill and funding for food stamps.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required schools to follow new nutritional guidelines starting with the 2012-13 academic year. That virtually banished whole milk in favor of skim milk. Schools couldn’t serve French fries multiple days of the week and still meet mandates on leafy greens or legumes.

Vilsack rejects that serving healthier meals is the reason why some school-lunch programs are losing money. He said a vast majority of schools across the country have done it successfully, including all public schools in Washington.

He said some schools, including those in rural areas, may be unfairly blaming the nutrition standards for financial problems stemming from declining enrollment and other issues. He also noted the federal government provides cash and technical help to cafeterias, including cooking equipment and advice on food purchasing.

Vilsack said 26 percent of Washington students aged 10 to 17 are either obese or overweight. School meals are a big part of their diet. Nationally, 31 million low-income children, or 70 percent of students, eat free or reduced-price lunches. The rate in Washington is about 45 percent.

“Opting out is not the way to move forward,” he said.

Vilsack said an even bigger fight over nutritional standards will come next year, when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is up for reauthorization.

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or Twitter: @KyungMSong

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