WASHINGTON — Schools would have more flexibility to serve refined grains and salty foods to the nation's school children under legislation a Senate panel is considering.
The Senate Agriculture Committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on the bipartisan bill, which is designed to help schools that have complained that the Obama administration's healthier school meal rules are too restrictive. Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the GOP chairman of the agriculture panel, and Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the committee's top Democrat, introduced the bill Monday after reaching an agreement to ease requirements for whole grains and delay an upcoming deadline to cut sodium levels.
The compromise signals a truce between first lady Michelle Obama and congressional Republicans who have been at odds over the rules for more than two years. The first lady has highlighted the standards as part of her campaign against childhood obesity and said she would fight "to the bitter end" to keep them intact.
The White House has yet to weigh in on the agreement, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a statement Tuesday supporting the legislation.
The agreement is also backed by the School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutrition directors and companies that sell food to schools. That group has led the fight to scale back the administration's requirements.
"In the absence of increased funding, this agreement eases operational challenges and provides school meal programs critical flexibility to help them plan healthy school meals that appeal to students," said Jean Ronnei, president of the association.
The rules phased in since 2012 set fat, calorie, sugar and sodium limits on foods in the lunch line and beyond. They also require more whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Schools have long been required to follow government nutrition rules if they accept federal reimbursements for free and reduced-price meals for low-income students, but the new standards are stricter and some schools have said they are unworkable.
The five-year Senate legislation would direct the Agriculture Department to revise the whole grain and sodium standards within 90 days of the bill's enactment, meaning the new rules could be in place by next school year if Congress acts quickly. Under a separate agreement among those negotiating the bill, including USDA and the school nutrition group, the new rules would scale back the whole grain standards to require that 80 percent of grains on the lunch line must be whole grain rich, or more than half whole grain.
Currently, all grains are required to be whole grain rich, though some schools have applied for waivers. Schools say some kids don't like whole grain pastas, biscuits, grits and tortillas.
In addition, the agreement would delay stricter standards on sodium that are scheduled for the 2017 school year. They would now be delayed two years, and a study would measure the benefits of those reductions.
The legislation would also require the government to figure out ways to reduce waste of fruits and vegetables and put more resources into summer feeding programs.
Supporters of the Senate bill are hoping that an agreement among the formerly feuding parties could influence the House, which has not yet introduced a bill.
Not everyone is ready for compromise. GOP presidential candidate Chris Christie said Monday that the first lady has "no business" being involved in decisions over school lunches. The New Jersey governor, who has been public about his struggles with weight, said it's "just another example of how the Obamas believe that they've got a better answer for everything than you do."
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