House Appropriators awoke Thursday to an op-ed in the New York Times by Michelle Obama warning them not to pass legislation that she says weakens healthy standards for school lunches passed in 2010. “[S]ome members of the House of Representatives are now threatening to roll back these new standards and lower the quality of food our kids get in school,” the First Lady wrote. “They want to make it optional, not mandatory, for schools to serve fruits and vegetables to our kids. They also want to allow more sodium and fewer whole grains than recommended into school lunches.”
Unimpressed, the House Appropriations Committee approved the Agriculture Department’s fiscal 2015 spending bill, including the controversial changes, by a vote of 31-18. Republicans considered the changes fairly moderate, certainly not as dramatic as what the School Nutrition Association had advocated, according to a GOP aide close to the process, who noted that the bill was passed out of subcommittee unanimously. The SNA has been lobbying to slow down implementation of changes to school lunch rules because of a variety of challenges, such as the cost, the availability in rural areas and the drop off of a million students in the past year—mostly older high school students in urban areas who are going out and buying fast food in the place of the new healthy lunches.
At stake in the House bill are two roll backs. The first is a waiver that would allow schools struggling to meet the new standards an extra year to implement the changes. While this sounds innocuous enough, school budgets are not often clearly defined and it could give schools “the ability to game the system,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters on Wednesday. “Plus it would be complicated to implement. Would the department audit the schools?” More than 30 million children get one or more meals every day as part of the program.
Vilsack noted that 90% of the schools are already in compliance, a high rate for a new program. So to open the door for delays, critics say, could be the first step in dismantling regulations that Republicans have derided as the government acting as a nanny state. Democrats tried to strip the waiver from the bill in Thursday’s committee mark up, failing in a vote along party lines.
In contrast, the Senate Appropriations Committee last week rejected blanket waivers in favor of boosting training to help schools come into compliance, provided more flexibility on whole grain standards and, in a victory for the cheese lobby, waived the second and third sodium reduction requirements due to come into effect in 2017 and 2022. The cheese lobby had been concerned that cheese doesn’t melt well with less sodium. Health advocates argue that children don’t need to be eating pizza and grilled cheese, any way.
The second change in the House bill would allow white potatoes to be included in the Women, Infants and Children program, which helps subsidize fruits and vegetables for low-income families. Up until this point, the program focused on encouraging the purchase of leafy greens and fruits not often bought by low income families. Potatoes are the number one consumed vegetable in the U.S., mostly in fried form. The potato changes were included in the both the House and Senate bills and, in a bow to the potato lobby, would mark “the first time that Congress has interfered with the scientists' recommendation for the WIC program,” as Senator Tom Harkin noted in opposing the Senate version last week.
Potato supporters argue that the USDA says certain nutrients are still lacking in women and children’s diets and potatoes carry many of those nutrients. The Senate version limits the potatoes to whole potatoes with no additives such as oil and sugar, essentially barring program participants from using their credits to buy potato products such as French fries and hash browns.
The bill will now head to the House floor for passage before being conferenced with the Senate version where differences over the hot cheesy potato mess will be ironed out. It will surely not be as fun or tasty as it sounds, especially with Michelle Obama checking to make sure everyone’s eating their vegetables.