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Noem makes another push-back against school lunch reform

The school nutrition reforms passed in 2010 after much lobbying by First Lady Michelle Obama are costing too much and should be rolled back, Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., and 41 other U.S. House members say.

The group wrote a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack arguing that schools need more flexibility under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, just as a second round of nutrition standards are set to take effect for the coming school year.

"Together, we share the goal of healthier food options and outcomes for our children," reads the letter. "However, as the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act has been partially implemented, (schools) have experienced soaring costs, increased administrative burdens and unintended regulatory consequences that have negatively impacted participation rates and the long-term sustainability of school nutrition programs."

The letter comes as members of the Republican-led House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture considers whether to withhold funding for the program until the nutrition standards are eased, reports the Capitol Hill publication Politico.

The next wave of nutrition standards would boost the whole grain requirement for pasta and breads from 50 percent to 100 percent and would require that each student get a fruit or vegetable with every meal.

School officials in Mitchell reported this week that the new standards have put the school district more than $56,000 in the red this school year. While the costs will be covered out of reserves from the school lunch budget, they said the status quo puts the program three years away from insolvency. Then, general fund dollars would be needed to sustain the program that now operates using federal funds and meal charges.

"We all want our kids to be healthier, but enforcing a nationwide, one-size-fits all approach is extremely costly for our schools and jeopardizing the program's long-term viability," Noem said. "Already, compliance with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has led to lower participation rates and sent costs soaring. Stricter standards will only exacerbate these unintended consequences, making it harder on school budgets and on our kids."

Supporters of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act say the issue should not be partisan and the Republicans fighting the standards are putting food industry profits ahead of children's health. They note that part of the push-back includes efforts to ease restrictions on what other food-sellers, such as fast-food outlets, could sell to students at school.

"Let's be clear, the changes to nutrition programs people are pushing will mean more sodium in kid's meals, fewer fruits and vegetables on their plates, more sugary drinks and snacks in our schools, and french fries for toddlers in the (Women, Infants and Children) program," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, told Politico. "It would be a sad day if child nutrition programs with 40 years of public health science and long-standing, bipartisan support behind them are eroded because Congress allows these programs to be guided by industry's bottom line instead of what is best for our kids."

In addition to increased costs, critics of the revamped school lunches point out that participation in the federal school lunch program declined by more than 1 million students, or 3.7 percent, in the first year the new standards were in effect. In addition, they cite numerous reports that students throw more food away because they do not like the taste.

Noem has expressed concern about the school lunch reforms since soon after they took effect, stating at the time that students complained the meals were not filling them up.

In December, Noem introduced the Reducing Federal Mandates on School Lunch Act, which was endorsed by the National School Boards Association, the School Superintendents Association and the Council of the Great City Schools. The legislation would:

• Make the USDA's easing of the meat and grain requirements permanent, allowing schools more flexibility in serving meats and grains while still staying within calorie maximums. (Noem says the USDA has recently made this change without legislation.)

• Give administrators flexibility on some of the rules that have increased costs for school districts.