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Republicans propose waivers for school food programs

| Monday, June 2, 2014, 3:51 a.m.

U.S. House Republicans are proposing to let some schools opt out of healthier school lunch and breakfast programs if they are losing money.

A GOP spending bill for agriculture and food programs approved 31-18 by the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday would allow schools to apply for waivers if they have a net loss on school food programs for six months in a row.

“This bill invests in the people of this country — in their safety, their livelihoods, and their communities — and ensures that our agricultural industries are successful, productive and safe,” said committee chairman Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky. “In addition, this bill supports nutrition programs that help to make sure our most vulnerable — including children and the elderly — do not go hungry, and funds important programs to keep our food and drug supply safe.”

However, as cash-strapped as some Mon-Yough area districts may be, local schools are declining the offer.

“This would not affect us,” South Allegheny School District spokeswoman Laura Thomson said. “South Allegheny is not considering opting out.”

“We are not opting out of the program at this time,” West Jefferson Hills School District director of finance Tracy Harris said. “This has not been discussed.”

“Our food services department is budgeted to break even for the year,” Steel Valley Superintendent Ed Wehrer said. “At this time we do not anticipate having a net loss.”

“At this point we are nearly certain that the bill will not affect the McKeesport Area School District,” spokeswoman Kristen Giran said. “Currently, we do not lose money in the program but understand that the bottom line is affected by the standards.”

As championed by first lady Michelle Obama, new standards were phased in over the last two school years, with more changes coming this year. The rules set fat, calorie, sugar and sodium limits on foods in the lunch line and beyond.

“We did receive just this week notice that we will be participating in the federal fresh fruit and vegetable program, which will give us additional money to provide snacks, fresh fruit and vegetable snacks,” Duquesne City School District spokeswoman Sarah McCluan said. “We would not be applying for the waiver.”

On Tuesday, the first lady rallied supporters of her healthier food rules at a roundtable touted on her letsmove.gov website.

“The last thing that we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids' health,” Obama said. “Now is not the time to roll back everything that we have worked for.”

While many schools have had success putting the rules in place, others have said the rules are too restrictive and costly.

“School meal programs need more flexibility to plan menus that increase student consumption of healthy choices while limiting waste,” said Leah Schmidt, president of the School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutrition directors and companies who sell food to schools.

The House bill is part of a budget process that includes Senate subcommittee action on its own version of a food and farm spending bill. The House Appropriations Committee said in a release the waiver language is in response to requests from schools, but the first lady said more than 90 percent of schools are successfully meeting the updated nutrition standards.

The School Nutrition Association says almost half of school meal programs reported declines in revenue in the 2012-13 school year and 90 percent said food costs were up.

“Our administrators have not noticed a difference in the amount or the type of food that is being thrown away,” Duquesne's McCluan said. “Very little food is thrown away. We have not noticed a difference over the past year or the past few years.”

Norwin spokesman Jonathan Szish said his district's food and nutrition services director said the legislation would not affect schools in the Irwin-North Huntingdon Township-North Irwin district.

Elizabeth Forward Superintendent Bart Rocco declined comment, saying he needed more information about the legislation.

“Our cafeterias just provide the best service we can, and follow the federal guidelines,” Rocco said. “We're not here to make or lose money.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or pcloonan@tribweb.com.

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