Hoeven advocates for flexible school lunch guidelines

Proposed legislation to lock flexibility into the federal school lunch program is being welcomed by Minot administrators, teachers and students.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., a sponsor of the legislation, visited Magic City Campus Wednesday to provide an update at a news conference and hear from school representatives.

Hoeven and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., with the support of a bipartisan group of senators, introduced the Sensible School Lunch Act to provide school districts with greater flexibility in implementing new rules for the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program.

“Flexibility is something we need to see in the hot lunch program guidelines,” said Mary-Beth Gross, nutrition instructor at Magic City. “By having fewer ‘strict’ guidelines, we may see an increase in how many students stay in and eat at the school, ensuring they get at least one nutritional meal a day. For some, this may be the only full meal they get.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture drew complaints after releasing its final rule for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 last year. The final rule attempted to curb obesity among youth by strictly limiting calories, protein and grains for all students, without considering different dietary needs.

The USDA categorizes students into broad grade brackets for the purpose of nutritional needs, leaving a 13-year-old eighth grader with the same protein on his plate as a 5-year-old kindergartener and only one more ounce of grain.

“That leaves some of our eighth-graders very hungry during the day,” Hoeven said. “It just doesn’t work. It doesn’t make sense.”

Last December, the USDA withdrew its strict limits on proteins and grains to give schools more flexibility while keeping in place the upper cap on total calories. However, the USDA granted the relief only through spring 2013, later extending it through the spring of 2014.

The Hoeven-Pryor bill would make USDA’s temporary modification to the school meals regulation permanent. The legislation would allow more flexible portions of proteins and grains while leaving in place the rest of the regulation, including the total caloric cap and its emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and non-fat dairy selections.

Amanda Kraft, a junior at Magic City, told Hoeven that what’s important is giving students healthy choices.

“In our minds, we know we ought to choose the healthy choice, but in our actions, we don’t always follow through,” she said. “But an important factor to choosing the healthy choice is to know we have healthy options available to us.”

Gross added that nutrition education will do more to promote healthy eating than food restrictions.

Hoeven said flexibility in the lunch program will save schools across the country $75 million. The Hoeven-Pryor bill has been endorsed by the National Association of School Nutritionists.