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Editorial columns

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Give new lunch regs more time to work

The federal government spends more than $10 billion a year on the National School Lunch Program, which serves more than 30 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade. For that, taxpayers should expect schools not to feed their children junk.

That was the reasonable logic behind a 2010 law requiring stronger federal standards on school lunches – a law that Republicans in the House just voted to undercut. Congressmen can prove they care about healthy school lunches by letting the law phase in, even if it is inconvenient for some in the school food apparatus.

The standards call for students to be served low-fat dairy products, lean protein, foods rich in whole grain and fruits and vegetables. Children can decline part of these balanced meals, but they must take at least one serving of fruits or vegetables. These standards come from the Agriculture Department and are based on recommendations from experts at the Institute of Medicine.

Given that a third of American children and teenagers are overweight or obese, this initiative is common sense.

Various interests and some Republicans, however, are unhappy with the new approach. They point to statistics indicating that fewer students took school lunches in the 2012-13 school year. Some schools pulled out of the program rather than comply. Many complain that increases in federal funding haven’t offset added costs. There is concern that students are discarding a lot of (healthy) food.

These complaints have resulted in a push for waivers to the law’s requirements if schools claim they are having financial difficulties, a proposal a House subcommittee approved on Tuesday.

Ripping a hole in the law would be a mistake. Most of the cited problems are unsurprising, given that the law is just phasing in, and none of them is an excuse to slacken expectations on this major component of American children’s diets.

The Government Accountability Office found that the decline in school lunch participation has been driven by fewer people paying full price, not truly needy students going without subsidized meals. If wealthier families want to feed their children other things with their own money, fine. Their choices should not be used as pretext to demand anything less than reasonable, healthy foods in publicly supported cafeterias.

Many of the negatives are doubtless temporary, as schools put in the effort to make the policy work. Some schools, for example, have found that cutting apples into slices seems to reduce the number of children who refuse them. Food producers are reformulating products to make them both healthy and palatable, and some students will adjust to healthier foods, given time. These were among the aims of the policy.

The Obama administration has shown a willingness to listen to reasonable requests from schools. Tweaking the policy when necessary, not undermining it before it has time to work, is the right approach.