Hearing scheduled to discuss school lunchesWASHINGTON — The battle over the school lunch program is getting more bitter and turning into a partisan issue between the Democrats and the Republicans and a business battle between processed food companies and fruit and vegetables growers.
By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek
WASHINGTON — The battle over the school lunch program is getting more bitter and turning into a partisan issue between the Democrats and the Republicans and a business battle between processed food companies and fruit and vegetables growers.
The battle could have a big impact on whether the federal government and schools around the country use the $11 billion school meals budget to buy, for example, more pizza made in the Midwest, or more fruits and vegetables grown locally, but more likely in the major production areas of California, Florida and Texas.
The core of the issue is that in 2010, when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, they passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which said children should be served healthier food than in the past. The new regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture called for less salt, sodium and fat and more low-fat dairy and meat products, whole grain breads and pasta and require that a half cup of fruit and vegetables be served at every meal. Nutritionists, members of Congress and military officers cited problems such as the high percentage of young Americans who are too overweight or obese to qualify for the Armed Services as the reason for making the changes.
The School Nutrition Association, which represents the school food service directors and the companies that supply many of the foods, endorsed the bill, but now says some of the regulations are unworkable. At SNA’s urging, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee has passed a bill that would grant a one-year waiver from the healthier school meal rules to any school that says it has been losing money in its school meals program for six months. That agriculture appropriations bill could come up on the House floor in the next couple weeks, according to Capitol Hill sources.
SNA has also pushed for Congress to roll back some of the changes when the child nutrition programs come up for reauthorization in 2015. But SNA members, professional nutrition and medical associations and the Obama administration, including First Lady Michelle Obama, oppose the waiver and other changes, although they acknowledge that USDA needs to be flexible in its administration of the program.
The Senate Agriculture Committee will hold a hearing June 12 on reauthorization of the child nutrition programs, including school meals, a full year before those programs need to be reauthorized. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., supports the healthier meal rules, and her decision to hold a hearing a year early seems to be a reaction to the House proposal.
Stabenow announced the hearing after a week of bitter exchanges between SNA and the Obama administration.
Agriculture Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon told reporters that SNA had turned down an opportunity to discuss the issues in a conference call with Janey Thornton, his deputy undersecretary in charge of school meals.
SNA shot back that it wanted an in-person meeting with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Sam Kass, the executive director of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity.
A USDA source said requests for meetings with Vilsack on specific subjects go through the undersecretary in charge of that area because the secretary could not possibly take all such meeting requests.
A White House source also pointed out to Agweek that Kass had spoken at three SNA conferences and consulted frequently with SNA leaders for years.
The source also said since there had been a change of leadership at SNA, “no meeting has been requested” directly with Kass.
Meanwhile, the United Fresh Produce Association, has scheduled a session on how fruit and vegetable distributors can do more business with schools. United Fresh President and CEO Tom Stenzel said in an interview that he believes some schools are spending more money than necessary on fruits and vegetables because they are not used to buying those products and need help in learning how to make efficient purchases.