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Hoeven seeks permanent change to USDA school lunch regulation

A student serves up desert to classmates during lunch at the People for People Charter School on Monday in Philadelphia. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., have introduced a bill to fix the latest rulings by the Department of Agriculture.

WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of senators is backing a bill that makes permanent a more relaxed set of U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition guidelines for students' breakfasts and lunches in the nation's schools.

The Sensible School Lunch Act was recently introduced by Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark.

The act fixes the latest rulings on meat and grain servings made in December by the Department of Agriculture.

It will "make sure that schools are able to provide healthy, nutritious school lunches" and breakfasts, Hoeven said Tuesday. "But at the same time, that we have the common sense and flexibility built into it so that it meets the kids' needs and is workable for the schools."

Hoeven said his bill, S427, lifts the USDA's previous cap on servings of proteins and grains while leaving in place total calorie caps and the USDA's emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and non-fat dairy selections.

He said an older version of the nutrition rules, widely derided, cost the nation's schools $75 million to implement, while older children complained they were hungry.

Hoeven said the USDA's plan to extend its relaxed guidelines through next year seemed like a piecemeal approach.

"Let's make this change permanent so schools know what to count on." he said.

"It's really been a good project. It affects kids all over the country," Hoeven said. "When the kids get better lunches, they're happier."

Debra Laber, director of nutrition services for the Fargo School District, is in Washington, D.C., for a School Nutrition Association conference. She and fellow nutritionists are "in full support" of the bill.

"We think it's just great. We're very proud of him," Laber said. "North Dakota is a big hit right now because of what he's doing."

She added, "We have not had any complaints since those restrictions were lifted."

Jan Sliper, director of food service for the West Fargo School District, also likes the legislation.

"I could buy into that," she said. "It was really frustrating trying to fit a decent meal into those (old) limits."

Donna Tvedt, food service director for Moorhead, Minn., schools, also said keeping the new rules in place would help.

"It will definitely give us a little more leeway, especially for the high school age," she said.

She said high school and middle school students missed the sub sandwich lines, which kept them full through supper time.

"With their sports and activities, they're the ones that wanted a little more of the filling items," Tvedt said.

Last year, USDA released its final rule for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

The rule attempted to curb obesity among youths by strictly limiting calories, protein and grains.

What it did was produce a wave of protest across the nation.

In December, at the request of Hoeven and others, the USDA retracted its strict limits on proteins and grains, while keeping in place the upper cap on total calories.

The Hoeven-Pryor bill makes that permanent.