By Erik Wasson - 05/19/14 01:58 PM EDT
House Republicans have inserted language in a new spending bill that allows schools to opt out of tougher nutrition standards for lunch and breakfast programs if they can show the programs lose money.
The language sets up a fight between the House GOP and first lady Michelle Obama, who has championed the nutrition rules introduced in 2012. The first lady has made fighting childhood obesity her signature issue.
The new spending bill for the Agriculture Department requires the agency to waive nutrition requirements for school lunch programs when a “state that verifies a net loss from operating a food service program for a period of at least 6 months that begins on or after July 1, 2013.”
Republicans on the committee note that the waiver is temporary and the language is being included in response to requests from struggling local schools.
Democrats on the Appropriations Committee are expected to try to remove the language from the bill. The rule was developed in conjunction with the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.
The School Nutrition Association, which represents providers of school breakfasts and lunches, has been lobbying in favor of temporary waivers. It argues students don't like the healthier food and are deciding not to pay for the school programs at all.
Since the standards went into effect, it said more than 1 million students have opted out of school lunch programs, causing financial strain on cafeterias.
The association says it supports some of the rules but wants to prevent a further strengthening of standards. It supports requiring 50 percent of meals to have whole grains but opposes implementing a forthcoming 100 percent standard and opposes moving to even lower sodium levels.
The Senate Appropriations Committee is set to unveil its 2015 agriculture spending bill, authored by subcommittee chairman Sen. Mark Pryor (R-Ark.), on Tuesday. A Democratic aide said the school lunch rider will not be in the Senate draft version of the bill but could come up as an amendment during Thursday's full committee markup.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) who serves on the Senate subcommittee issued a statement arguing that the House was putting "the food industry’s bottom line ahead of what is best for our kids".
“Now is the time to hold true to these nutrition standards — as science-based organizations from around the country are asking Congress to do — not undermine public health nutrition programs that have served our children well," Harkin said.