House Republicans are trying to roll back school-lunch nutrition requirements -- passed in 2010 with the backing of First Lady Michelle Obama -- saying the rules bust local budgets and micromanage what children eat.
The vote, over a provision in the U.S. agriculture spending bill, is a proxy for a broader debate between Republicans, who call the rules a massive government overreach, and Democrats, who say the opposing party is trying to protect the interests of big food producers.
Neither camp is discussing more money for healthier lunches, which nutrition advocates say are funded at less than the cost of a latte. Schools that meet the rules get 6 cents on top of about $3.10 a meal in U.S. funding for their efforts. Debate on the bill began today, with a final vote planned for tomorrow.
With fruit and protein prices rising, a budget-conscious Congress would rather point fingers than put money behind the program, said Parke Wilde, a nutrition-policy professor at Tufts University in Boston.
“The costs are preventing people from being good sports about these changes,” Wilde said. “You want schools to operate efficiently, but we don’t want to break them. I fear we are close to breaking them.”
The agriculture bill being debated on the House floor today authorizes spending for farm programs, food aid, the Food and Drug Administration and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
It includes a provision to let some school districts opt out of the healthy-food mandates, which call for more fresh foods and fewer calories. Schools that can prove they’re losing money on their school lunch programs can get a one-year waiver from the federal rules.
Companies affected by the rules include ConAgra Foods Inc., Tyson Foods Inc. and Domino’s Pizza Group Plc, all members of the School Nutrition Association. The group backed the legislation in 2010 and now supports allowing districts to opt out.
School nutrition directors, during a conference call today organized by their association, said they need a delay in some of the rules.
“Our students don’t like to be forced to take food they don’t want,” said Sara Gasiorowski, a food-service director in Wayne Township, Indiana. “Nearly a quarter of the food on our elementary school trays now ends up in the garbage.”
Tom Colicchio, head judge of the “Top Chef” television program, and Representative Sam Farr, a California Democrat, joined other supporters of the current rules at a news conference in Washington.
“We would never tell our kids to stop worrying about learning math and science because it’s hard,” Farr said in an interview. “So why would we tell them to not worry about eating healthy just because it’s hard?”
Even if the bill passes the House, its path in Congress is uncertain -- a similar measure in the Democratic-led Senate doesn’t include the meals provision.
More than 90 percent of schools have met the new rules so far, qualifying for the extra 6 cents, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The reimbursement rate, set under an automatic formula, will be reviewed as part of a separate child nutrition reauthorization, the topic of a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing tomorrow.
The high compliance rate shows the nutrition effort is working, said Sam Kass, executive director of “Let’s Move,” a program started by Michelle Obama to prevent childhood obesity. Kass, a former Chicago chef who helped create the White House vegetable garden, said in an interview that the rules should be preserved rather than cut back.
“By and large, school districts are making this work,” Kass said in an interview yesterday. “Some districts are having legitimate challenges, but the path forward is to make sure these efforts continue. I firmly believe that rolling back and gutting these standards is not the path forward.”
In a statement yesterday, the White House echoed Kass’s stance, with President Barack Obama threatening to veto the agriculture spending bill. Allowing districts to opt out would undermine “the effort to provide kids with more nutritious food,” according to the statement.
House Republicans said that in reality, the rules don’t work. Representative Rick Crawford, an Arkansas Republican, said schools in the eastern part of his state had to dip into general-fund revenue for the healthier lunches, which were often left uneaten. General funds also are used to buy books or pay teachers.
“Students in all grades were rejecting the food on their plate, and what was on their plate was in such small portions that they were hungry later in the day,” he said in a June 9 interview. “This was, I’m certain, a well-intentioned initiative, but could have been gone about in a more productive manner.”
Democrats say the companies don’t want to lose business to smaller fruit-and-vegetable providers or be required to revamp profitable products.
“There are a lot of traditional entities that sell to the school lunch programs that don’t want to be cut out of it,” Representative Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat, said in an interview. “The more healthy, locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables you get in there, the more some of the big food processing industry has less.”
Nutrition advocates say the White House underestimated opposition to the “Let’s Move” campaign.
The pushback on the law is an attempt “to stop the Obamas in any way possible,” said Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University. “You would think that Michelle Obama taking on childhood obesity would be something people would applaud. It’s a non-trivial public health issue. But she’s an Obama.”
School nutrition has always been complicated, said Representative Tim Walz, a Minnesota Democrat who taught high-school social studies for 20 years before coming to Congress. Walz said he heard complaints about cafeteria food when he monitored lunches at his high school, and is now getting an earful from constituents.
“When these school districts come back and say that it’s difficult on the money that you have given us to deliver this meal, that’s legitimate,” he said.
Exacerbating the lunch funding issue is a 2.6 percent increase in fresh fruit and vegetable prices so far this year because of the California drought. Also, hog and cattle prices have reached record highs this year, and a devastating pig virus is lowering pork production.
School-budget pressures, combined with the standards, may actually defeat nutritional goals, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association.
“When students are throwing away fruits and vegetables, that’s very expensive waste when costs are getting higher,” said Pratt-Heavner, who said her Maryland-based organization still supports many of the nutrition changes. “Things would be different with more resources.”
There’s room for compromise, Nestle said. “You can’t tell me the USDA doesn’t have some flexibility with this stuff,” she said. “This bill has become the vehicle for a lot of political agendas.”
Walz, the Minnesota Democrat and former high-school teacher, said he hasn’t decided how he’ll vote. While he understands the cost argument, Walz said the House plan may go too far in impeding progress in child nutrition.
“What I don’t want to do is to go back to unhealthy meals because it meets a budget number,” Walz said. “In the long run, if our kids are obese, it’s going to cost us a lot more than 6 cents a meal.”