In October, I hosted a Nutrition Summit in Jonesboro where I listened to school administrators, parents, nutritionists and teachers tell me how new nutrition guidelines from the Department of Agriculture are affecting their students. After the Summit it was clear that USDA's new school nutrition regulations are not working and are leaving students hungry. This week I joined with Arkansas's other members of the United States House of Representatives in filing legislation to return control of school lunches to school districts in Arkansas.
The Sensible School Lunch Act addresses the concerns I heard late last year and gives individual school districts the flexibility they need to feed their students. The legislation would allow more flexible portions of proteins and grains in the federal school meals program, while leaving in place the rest of the regulation, including the total calorie cap and its emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and non-fat dairy selections. The total calorie cap remains in place to ensure healthy meals in proportion, and allowable fruits are increased as compared to before, and vegetable servings are unlimited.
In late 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released their final rule for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which required new standards for school meals. The final rule strictly limits calories, protein and grains for all students. For example, a 13-year-old eighth grader may eat no more protein than a five-year-old kindergartener, and a 13 year old may eat only one more ounce of grain than a kindergartner. Similarly, an active 18 year-old high school senior playing football would get no more proteins or grains than a less active 14-year-old ninth grader.
Complying with the rule exceeded federal funding by a projected $75 million a year and placed a great strain on school budgets. Additionally, the new regulations produced a flood of concern by parents, students, teachers, coaches and administrators. Major concerns were the expense of the program and the lack of flexibility for those students who have nutritional needs that exceed the strict calorie, protein and grains restrictions.
While I will always be committed to providing our students with healthy and nutritious meals, the new school lunch standards simply are not working, and are leaving our kids hungry and unable to focus in school. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was well-intentioned, but the Nutrition Summit highlighted the fact that its effect on schools has opened the door to massive amounts of unintended consequences. The Sensible School Lunch Act will give Arkansas schools the flexibility they need to keep students full.