The school meal rules, phased in since 2012 and championed by first lady Michelle Obama, require more fruits, vegetables and whole grains in the lunch line. The standards also limit sodium, sugar and fat.
Some school nutrition directors have lobbied for a break, saying the rules have proven to be costly and restrictive. House Republicans have said they are an overreach, and have pushed a one-year waiver that would allow schools to opt out of the standards if they lost money on meal programs over a six-month period.
The waiver language stalled this summer after the first lady lobbied aggressively against it and the White House issued a veto threat. The food and farm spending bill that contained the provision was pulled from the House floor, a move House Republicans attributed to scheduling issues.
But the waiver has new life this month as lawmakers are expected to pass a catchall spending bill to keep government programs running. Republican Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama, the chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the school meal spending, has been pushing to include the waiver in the wide-ranging bill.
Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota both said Thursday that there are ongoing negotiations between the House and the Senate over the waiver. A Senate bill approved by a spending committee in May did not include the waiver, but called for further study on sodium and whole grains requirements.
At the time, Hoeven said there was not enough support for the House's one-year waiver in the Senate, even though he was supportive of it himself. But he said this week that could change as lawmakers negotiate the massive year-end spending bill.
"All of these things are part of a negotiation," Hoeven said. "I think we'll get something, but we'll have to see where it ends up."
On Friday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., listed "lowering standards for school lunches for our children" as one of a few "very destructive riders" that would be unacceptable to Democrats in the spending bill.
White House nutrition policy adviser Sam Kass said the White House is "deeply engaged" on the school meals policy, which has become one of the first lady's signature issues. He said the policy is a top priority for the administration.
"We'll always look to be flexible where appropriate, but what we're not going to do is undermine science and the health of kids in any way," Kass said.
This summer, Mrs. Obama said she would fight "until the bitter end" to make sure kids have good nutrition in schools.
While many schools have implemented the new standards successfully, others have said it's not working for them. The schools pushing for changes say limits on sodium and requirements for more whole grains are particularly challenging, while some school officials say kids are throwing away fruits and vegetables they are required to take.
The changes have been pushed by the School Nutrition Association, a group that counts both school nutrition directors and the food companies that produce many of the school foods among its members. The group said this week that a survey it conducted of more than 1,100 school lunch operators showed that more than half predict program expenses will exceed revenue this year.
Advocates for the healthier meal standards say the changes will take time. They predict there will be fewer problems as kids get used to the new foods and the food industry creates more tasty products that follow the standards, like whole grain pastas and tortillas that are now required to be served.
As schools have complained, USDA has shown some flexibility in tweaking the standards. In 2012, just a few months after the first rules went into effect, the department scrapped maximums on proteins and grains after students complained they were hungry. And USDA said earlier this year that schools can put off for two years a requirement that all pastas in schools be whole-grain rich, or more than half whole grain, if they can demonstrate that they have had "significant challenges" in preparing the pasta.
The year-end spending bill won't be the last time Congress takes on the school meal standards, as the overall law governing child nutrition policy, including school lunches, expires next year. Both the House and the new Republican Senate are expected to consider changes to the meal standards as part of legislation renewing the law.
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