New USDA regulations spark concern ; USDA: Some argue regulations too strict [Topeka Capital Journal (KS)]
(Topeka Capital Journal (KS) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Increasingly stringent federal regulations for school lunches and snacks are a key concern for Kansas schools, Auburn-Washburn Unified School District 437 superintendent Brenda Dietrich said Monday.
Dietrich took that message last week to Kansas' congressional delegation in Washington, D.C.
"It's going to be very difficult for us to find foods at breakfast and lunch that kids will eat," she said of the latest round of rules for school foods, which took effect July 1.
Dietrich and Blue Valley USD 229 superintendent Tom Trigg traveled to Washington, D.C., as Kansas' elected representatives on the governing board of the American Association of School Administrators.
While there, they met in person or with staffers for Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran and Reps. Lynn Jenkins, Kevin Yoder, Tim Huelskamp and Mike Pompeo.
The new regulations, which for the first time cover all foods sold or served in schools, including vending machine items and a la carte offerings, were high on the list of topics the superintendents wanted to discuss.
"We're not advocating for meals that aren't appropriately nutritious," Dietrich said, "but don't make the guidelines so restrictive that we can't afford the food and kids won't eat it."
Under the new rules, all foods in schools must meet limits for calories, sodium, fat and sugar, and fill one of four other nutritional criteria.
The changes are part of the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010, and are meant to combat obesity and ensure more children eat healthy, balanced meals. The USDA has been pushing schools toward more nutritious meals in recent years, requiring them to serve more fruits and whole grains, for example.
But some critics argue the regulations are too strict.
Dietrich said in her own district's experience, the changes up until this year hadn't been a problem.
"More kids are taking the fresh fruits, they're taking the vegetables," she said. "We have a whole grain pizza crust you wouldn't even notice."
But she said she is concerned the latest round of regulations go too far -- particularly the new sodium limits and standards for whole grains.
"This next level is very restrictive," she said.
Superintendents are concerned about two potential effects, she said: Students might not eat enough during breakfast and lunch, which could effect their ability to focus and learn in the classroom, or they may start bringing their own food.
The latter might be a problem because school districts rely on income from serving lunches to help cover their lunch service costs. If fewer students buy lunches, Dietrich suggested, some school districts may need to dip into their general operating funds to subsidize their lunch costs.
The USDA said earlier this year that its healthier regulations have improved school nutrition, and that school lunch revenue across the country has increased, rather than decreasing as critics had predicted.
But the School Nutrition Association has challenged that assertion. It says fewer students are eating school lunches, and revenues have dropped. The association has called for flexibility on some points of the nutrition regulations.
Dietrich said the Kansas congressional delegates indicated they understood schools' concerns.
In a email Monday, Rep. Lynn Jenkins indicated she supports flexibility on the matter.
"There is no doubt that childhood obesity is on the rise in America, and it is in our nation's best interest to find solutions to this problem," Jenkins said. "However, the business of raising children should be left to parents and family and where necessary, their local communities."
"While many children receive the majority of their meals in the school system, USDA should keep flexibility within the system to accommodate for different circumstances," she said.
Meanwhile, Dietrich said she and Trigg passed along their concerns to the congressional delegates about a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission to boost funding for wireless internet in schools.
The plan concerned a fee on telephone bills that provides money for telecommunications in schools. Dietrich said Kansas superintendents were concerned the FCC would neglect funding for broadband services important to many schools, particularly in rural areas.
"For those districts it would have been very problematic," Dietrich said.
The day after their meetings with Dietrich and Trigg, Kansas' members of Congress sent a joint letter to the FCC asking them to postpone and rethink the changes.
On Friday, the FCC passed its proposal with tweaks to address the concerns, which other organizations also had raised.
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