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Congress sneaks through plan to make school lunches less healthy

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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.
  1. Schools were supposed to have more whole grains in lunches this academic year, but they're now getting a break from that requirement.
  2. The Congressional spending bill unveiled Tuesday would exempt schools from that rule if they can prove they're having a hard time finding acceptable whole-grain products. It also delays a requirement that school meals have less sodium by 2017.
  3. This is the latest example of how school lunch has become a political battleground — a fight that could heat up in the next Congress.

Meals will still have to be at least half whole-grain rich

After Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, new rules required school lunches to get much healthier than they'd been in the past. Pizza could still be a school lunch staple — but it would have to be whole grain pizza.

What counts as a whole grain is complicated. Starting this school year, all grain products served in school lunches — anything from pizza crust to sandwich bread to rice — are supposed to be "whole grain-rich," meaning either whole grains are the main ingredient (in bread) or that whatever flour product they use is at least half whole-grain flour (in pizza, corn dogs, and other dishes that aren't just grains.) It's a confusing issue, as this USDA flowchart demonstrates:

USDA whole grain flowchart

The new lunch regulations were controversial, partly because of their association with the White House's push to get kids eating healthier and partly due to reports that kids didn't like the new lunches very much.

Congress is now offering schools a way out of the new whole grain requirement if they can prove they're having trouble finding acceptable products. (The USDA had already offered this flexibility for pasta, because whole-grain pasta is apparently particularly tough to find or prepare so that kids like it.) At least half of the grain products offered at school meals will still have to be "whole grain-rich."

Congress also will require scientific proof that another requirement to lower the sodium in school meals starting in 2017 will actually help students' health.

Is it actually hard to find whole-grain products?

Whole grains

Delicious whole-grain bread. (Shutterstock)

It's not clear how much trouble districts are actually having finding whole grain-rich products. Schools have complained that kids don't like whole grains, particularly in biscuits, tortillas, and pasta. And whole grains do tend to be more expensive than their less nutritious counterparts, although not always. A 2012 study from the American Association of Cereal Chemists found that whole-grain tortillas and bagels cost no more than refined flour tortillas and bagels, but that generic pasta and sandwich bread was still pricier in whole-grain varieties.

National studies from the Government Accountability Office and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have found that the negative reaction varies from school to school, and suggested that the controversy will die down as students get used to the new lunches.

Meanwhile, processed food manufacturers are stepping up their whole grain products. At a school nutrition convention in Boston this summer, more than 400 manufacturers were offering whole-grain snacks to taste, promising that kids wouldn't be able to tell the difference, Politico reported at the time. So it's not clear how long schools will be able to claim that they can't find, or afford, whole-grain products for their students' lunches.

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