The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday voted to approve a policy rider in ag appropriations language that would grant schools more flexibility in implementing federal school lunch standards.
The plan, offered Sen. Tom Harkin, R-Iowa, would delay school lunch sodium requirements pending more research and require USDA provide a plan to provide schools with more training, strategies to reduce plate waste and ways to maintain or improve participation in the school lunch program.
The amendment also provides more flexibility on whole grains, allowing the Secretary of Agriculture to determine if there is an acceptable range of products available – in sufficient quantities and of sufficient quality – to allow schools to plan menus compliant with requirements. If not, it will allow extra time for the market to produce acceptable products.
The allowances were viewed as more relaxed approach to school lunch requirements than presented earlier this week in the House, where a policy rider was approved to allow school districts to make the case for a standards waiver if meal programs aren't profitable.
Vilsack contends such an allowance would hinder efforts to bring healthier foods to kids.
"We believe that would be chaotic, it would be extraordinarily difficult to administer, and it would essentially, in my view, gut the opportunity that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is presenting of improving the health and welfare of our children," Vilsack said during a Thursday press call.
Attempting to counter claims of schools bailing on lunch requirements and opting out of the program completely, Vilsack added that participation is still high nationwide.
"It's less than two-tenths of one percent of the school districts across the United States are no longer participating in the school lunch and school breakfast program," Vilsack said. "It's clear that we are continuing to see robust commitment…to these standards and to this effort."
In response to the Senate amendment, Vilsack said USDA plans to work with food companies on the sodium requirement and recognize issues with food availability.
"We would be happy to work with the Senate proposal, because I think it is consistent with the way in which we have approached the implementation up to this point," Vilsack said. "But providing a waiver and gutting the program is not in the best interest of America's children."