Senate Agriculture panel passes child nutrition bill

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday approved a five-year reauthorization for child nutrition programs, following bipartisan compromises on issues such as standards for the levels of sodium and whole grains in school lunches.

The bill, introduced by Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, and Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow, the panel’s ranking Democrat, requires schools to hit lower sodium levels by 2019 instead of 2017.

Stabenow said she was pleased with the compromises, noting that they maintain requirements that a half-cup of fruits or vegetables be provided with school meals.

“They’re developing new ways to cook and new products and so on, and that phase-in (on lower sodium levels) was something everybody was willing to do,” Stabenow told The Detroit News.

The School Nutrition Association initially pushed to halve the requirement that 100 percent of grains-based foods offered by schools be 51 percent whole grain.

“We basically agreed on compromise that 80 percent — four out of five days — whole grains will be used, but one day a week there can be flexibility,” Stabenow said.

The bill would also expand the availability of summertime meals to children who qualify for free or reduced lunches during the school year. In Michigan, only 13 percent of the 600,000 kids who qualify for the meals get them in the summer, Stabenow said.

In the Women, Infants and Children program, the bill would allow children up to age 6 who aren’t in full-time kindergarten to continue receiving nutritional supplements through WIC. Currently, kids lose eligibility for the supplement at age 5, even if they’re not enrolled in school.

“Folks said we couldn’t come to an agreement on child nutrition reauthorization — let alone a bipartisan agreement — but we did,” Roberts said in a statement.

“This bipartisan legislation is a true compromise. Not everyone got everything they wanted, but a lot of folks have a lot to be happy about.”

The legislation directs the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to contract an independent entity to review the nutrition standards for sodium by July 1, 2019.

Vilsack on Wednesday indicated support for the legislation, saying that “rather than diminish the progress made since the changes were implemented in 2012, the Senate’s bill ensures progress will continue improving our children’s diets, and it promises to end partisan battles about the future of our kids.”

He noted a 2014 Harvard study showing that in some schools, under updated standards, children are eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch.

A 2015 study by the University of Connecticut found that after the standards were updated kids ate nearly 20 percent more of their vegetables in schools that researchers examined.

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