First lady, GOP Congress head toward truce on school lunches

Thursday, January 21, 2016

WASHINGTON -- First lady Michelle Obama and congressional Republicans may be headed toward a truce on meals served to the nation's schoolchildren, but at least one GOP presidential candidate is signaling the political battle isn't over.

A bipartisan Senate agreement would revise healthier meal standards put into place over the last few years to give schools more flexibility, easing requirements on whole grains and delaying an upcoming deadline to cut sodium levels on the lunch line.

While legislation released by the Senate Agriculture Committee on Monday would placate some schools that have complained the rules are burdensome, it is greatly scaled back from an unsuccessful 2014 House Republican effort to allow some schools to opt out of the rules entirely.

The panel is scheduled to vote on the measure Wednesday.

After more than two years of public quarreling, the bill signals a possible armistice among school lunch directors, congressional Republicans and first lady Michelle Obama, who has highlighted the standards as part of her campaign against childhood obesity.

At the same time, GOP presidential candidate Chris Christie made it clear not everyone is willing to compromise on the issue.

The New Jersey governor, who in his struggle with his weight underwent lap-band surgery in February 2013, told an Iowa town hall Monday the first lady "has no business" being involved in the school-lunch debate.

"I think that this intervention into our school system is just another example of how the Obamas believe that they've got a better answer for everything than you do," Christie said.

The rules phased in since 2012 set fat, calorie, sugar and sodium limits on foods in the lunch line and beyond.

They also require more whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

Schools long have been required to follow government nutrition rules if they accept federal reimbursements for free and reduced-price meals for low-income students, but the new standards are stricter, and some schools have said they are unworkable.

The School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutrition directors and companies that sell food to schools, has led the fight to scale back the Obama administration's requirements.

The group said it is supportive of the agreement negotiated by Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

"In the absence of increased funding, this agreement eases operational challenges and provides school meal programs critical flexibility to help them plan healthy school meals that appeal to students," the association's president, Jean Ronnei, said.

The White House has yet to weigh in on the compromise, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack backed the legislation in a statement.

"The Senate's bill ensures progress will continue improving our children's diets, and it promises to end partisan battles about the future of our kids," Vilsack said.

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