APHA and other advocates support strong standards for our nation's child nutrition programs, which include our school lunch program. Photo by Amanda Mills, courtesy CDC

APHA and other advocates support strong standards for our nation’s child nutrition programs, which include the school lunch program. Photo by Amanda Mills, courtesy CDC

A Senate committee unanimously approved legislation today to reauthorize our nation’s child nutrition programs, which include school breakfasts and lunches.

The bipartisan measure is being hailed by public health and child nutrition advocates as “sensible” for preserving gains toward stronger standards while granting states room to meet those standards.

“This compromise legislation offers us a real path forward to build on a science-based approach while providing schools struggling to meet the guidelines the flexibility and support they need to ensure that our kids have healthy food options,” said APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, MD, in a news release.

The measure would provide a five-year reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which expired Sept. 30. It would maintain the major nutrition-related provisions for sodium, whole grains and increased fruits and vegetables in school lunches. It would also require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to revise guidelines for sodium and whole grain content to provide any struggling schools with additional time to meet the sodium standards and flexibility for whole grains.

“The bill is consistent with the approach taken at USDA all along, which is to provide reasonable flexibility for schools as they continue transitioning to the updated standards — an approach that is working,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement.

Vilsack underscored a range of studies and surveys that show the new meals are well-liked by students and parents, and pointed to new evidence that “suggests after decades of a growing obesity epidemic that harmed the health and future of our children and cost our country billions, we are starting to see progress in preventing this disease.”

The measure would also support efforts to provide adequate kitchen equipment, technical assistance and training to school districts in need.

“Given all of the aggressive lobbying against school nutrition over the past few years, it’s remarkable that the new Senate bill is as strong a way forward as it is,” said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a statement.

The legislation, which was passed by the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee led by Sen. Pat Roberts, chair, and Debbie Stabenow, ranking member, now moves to the full Senate. The House of Representatives has yet to act. The last reauthorization occurred in 2010 through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Added Wootan, an APHA member: “It’s our hope that as the draft legislation wends its way through both houses of Congress, it can be managed with the same bipartisan spirit that has characterized the school lunch program since its inception in 1946.”