Legislation with South Dakota roots has been proposed in Congress to loosen the rules regarding school lunch standards.
U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., has proposed the Reducing Federal Mandates on School Lunch Act, which is primarily targeted at reducing the sodium and whole grain requirements that school lunch programs have been required to meet.
She told The Daily Republic this week that her bill is directed at allowing for more flexibility for schools to set healthy menu options.
"This is really about giving local schools the most flexibility we can, while still maintaining an effort to have our students eating healthy and nutritious meals," she said. "I think a lot of schools are finding it difficult under the current format."
That bill has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and would lower some of the requirements mandated by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a law championed by First Lady Michelle Obama. Obama stands behind the law, reaffirming recently that to get students acclimated to healthier foods, they must start young. Some of the standards in the 2010 law are set to expire this year.
But national education organizations say this hasn't been a success. NSBA Deputy Associate Executive Director Lucy Gettman said the association surveyed nearly 650 schools last fall in 36 states and found that the national nutrition standards increased costs for 82 percent of districts, decreased participation in more than 75 percent of the schools and increased plate waste in 84 percent of schools. She said at a recent conference, a representative from Oregon said some of the school's waste is being used to feed pigs on a nearby farm.
Prior to this effort, Noem introduced an initial bill in 2013 with similar goals of loosening standards.
The latest version of the bill is targeted towards whole grain requirements and Target 2 sodium levels, which would tighten the amounts of sodium students could receive in a day in 2017-18. Noem wants to see the sodium levels stay at the current standard, Target 1 and loosen the whole-grain requirement from 100 percent whole grain rich to 50 percent, which is where the grain requirement was a few years ago. Schools have said that 100 percent whole grain is a problem when trying to serve pastas, biscuits or tortillas because the supply offered is limited.
Schools have to follow government nutrition standards to receive federal reimbursements for free and reduced price meals for low income students.
Groups like the American Heart Association have said the sodium standards are necessary to prevent more students from developing high blood pressure and putting them at risk for heart disease or stroke.
Noem said milk and cheese products include naturally occurring sodium and more stringent rules aren't realistic for schools. Her bill wouldn't make changes to the calorie count requirements or the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables required to be served to students.
The Republican-controlled Congress has worked on short-term solutions as part of a spending bill passed last year. Noem said the flexibility in the rules is needed because too many schools are experiencing students throwing away food and dealing with more waste.
"We've seen a negative impact since these rules have gone into place and there's less students participating and more food being thrown away," she said.
Mitchell Food Service Director Sean Moen said the school district has felt the impact of the program first hand. He's in his 10th year running the food service program, and while the first eight years were stable and successful, Moen said the last few have been rough. The district has raised meal prices to try to cover a revenue deficit in the previously self-sustaining school meal program, upping the lunch rates by a 25 cents prior to 2014-15.
"How can you go from a program that's viable to one that's struggling with participation as much as we have?" Moen said. "There's a problem here and we're not the only ones."
Moen said the availability of some of the items can come and go, as the food service industry tries to figure out the new demands. For example, finding "smart snacks" that meet U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations and that students will eat remains difficult. Some smart snacks available through al a carte in Mitchell include small bags of popcorn and baked potato chips, Moen said.
"It's still hit or miss. You've got the industry trying to keep up and that's not done overnight," he said. "This has been in effect for more than a year, and they're still trying to figure out where to go."
Mitchell Board of Education Member Neil Putnam is the Western Region Director for the National School Board Association, which has endorsed Noem's legislation. He served on the group's Policy and Resolution committee and the topic has been a focus of the organization's legislative activity.
"We're seeing that this is an issue all across the country, even in the most urban of areas," he said. "I think it's something we're feeling in South Dakota because we're such a rural state and we're much further away from the coasts, where getting large quantities of fruits and vegetables might be easier."
Gettman said school lunches are ultimately an extension of the school's educational mission and everyone believes they should be healthier, a feeling she said is felt on Capitol Hill. But federal regulations also need to give school districts a way to meet the guidelines. She said schools in the New England states have tried to come up with buying consortiums or co-ops to make buying goods easier for the schools.
Putnam said the work of Noem and others is appreciated.
"I think, at least on our end with the NSBA, we're supportive of her proposal, not only for the intent of it but because it continues the conversation about getting healthy meals into our schools in an affordable manner," he said.
Putnam said it's concerning that many school lunch programs used to be self-sustaining and would pay for themselves. Now, some schools have had to direct more money to school lunches and away from educational programming.
A counterpart to Noem's bill has also been introduced on the Senate side by U.S. Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.). Noem said both North and South Dakota have similar issues with the bill because they're located in some places that are far from markets.
"I think it shows that these one-size-fits-all types of legislation are not good fits for our citizens," Noem said. "Not all of our kids are the same. Some of them play multiple sports and some of them are less active but it's a situation where our local people know what's best for our students."
Moen said the flexibility to build a menu around what kids are used to while still hitting the guideline markers is what he wants to see. He said Congress is reactive and will soon figure out to make a change.
"We live in the middle of the country, in the heartland," he said. "We eat different things and our appetites are different that those on the coasts. We're a meat and potatoes type of program."