Indigestion: School Boards Seek Relief From 'Onerous' School Lunch Rules

By Susan Jones | May 20, 2014 | 9:38 AM EDT

School lunch. (AP Photo)

( - The National School Boards Association is seeking relief from the "onerous regulations" and "rigid mandates" of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a law pushed by first lady Michelle Obama.

“Students need healthy meals and adequate nutrition to achieve their potential in school, and school board members are committed to ensuring all students are prepared to learn,” said NSBA Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel, whose group represents 90,000 local school board members across the nation.

“However, school boards cannot ignore the higher costs and operational issues created by the rigid mandates of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.”

NSBA wants lawmakers to provide "modest regulatory relief" for school meal programs in the fiscal year 2015 appropriation for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The NSBA spelled out its request in a May 19 letter to the House Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies, as follows:

-- Retain the current requirement that 50 percent of grains offered for lunch and breakfast be whole grain rich rather than further increasing the requirement to 100 percent;

-- Suspend further reductions of sodium levels unless and until scientific research supports such reductions for children;

-- Eliminate the requirement that students must take a fruit or vegetable as part of a reimbursable breakfast and/or lunch, in order to reduce plate waste and program costs;

-- Allow any food item served as part of a reimbursable meal to be sold at any time as a competitive food, in order to eliminate unnecessarily complex and duplicative standards for food items sold in schools.

"These changes retain the benefits to school children of healthy school meals, while providing common sense flexibility to school districts struggling to comply with the new national nutrition standards, competitive foods standards and many other requirements of (the law)," Gentzel wrote to the subcommittee.

"It is imperative that the Department of Agriculture implement (the law) so that it is cost-neutral to school districts," Gentzel said. Otherwise, he added, schools will have to redirect funds used for instruction -- or they'll have to increase costs for students and families.

A January 2014 report from the General Accountability Office found that nationwide, participation in the National School Lunch Program declined by 1.2 million students (3.7 percent) from school year 2010-2011 through school year 2012-2013, following many years of steady increases.

The number of students eating full-price meals dropped by 1.6 million, while those receiving free meals increased.

That same report found that menu changes and nutrition requirements influenced participation in the school lunch program: "For example, almost all states reported ...that obtaining student acceptance of lunches that complied with the new requirements was challenging during school year 2012-2013, which likely affected participation in the program."

GAO also noted a rise in "plate waste," where required foods were thrown away rather than eaten by students.

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