House panel cuts school nutrition standards

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The House on Tuesday moved forward with legislation aimed at exempting some schools from lunch nutrition rules that have been a part of first lady Michelle Obama’s anti-childhood obesity initiative.

An Appropriations subpanel approved language that would require the Agriculture Department to waive requirements to serve fruits, vegetables and low-sodium and low-fat foods for schools that can show their lunch programs are losing money.

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Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) said the temporary waivers are needed because some school districts are losing too much money and need more time to adjust to the requirement. He said a big problem is that students are refusing to eat the healthy foods.

“I am talking to the lunch ladies who do all this work, and it is thrown in the garbage at the end of the day,” he said. 

Panel member Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who voted no on the bill, said the provision was a carve-out to the food industry and argued that 90 percent of schools are successfully implementing the standards.

“Why would Congress, already maligned for labeling pizza a vegetable, and I know something about pizza, now seek to weaken federal child nutrition programs — and through the appropriations process no less — other than to appease the industry,” DeLauro said. 

“I am not hearing from industry,” Aderholt shot back. “I don’t know where industry is on this. … I am hearing from lunch ladies I talk to.” 

He said that the schools that are implementing the standards would not be affected by the waiver provision.

“If your schools are successfully implementing the nutrition standards and operating in the black, they would not qualify for or need a waiver. However, for schools suffering economic hardship and needing more time to implement and adjust to the new standards, this waiver gives them that flexibility schools are asking us to provide,” he said.

Democrats on the subcommittee said the language would set a bad precedent by creating incentives for cafeterias to use money intended to buy fresh produce to buy cheaper fast food instead.

DeLauro suggested that more could be done to help schools meet the standards and that the USDA is already aware of the problem.

“The problem is the kids are saying they don’t want this. You are trying to force them to eat things they don’t want, and they go elsewhere,” top appropriator, Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) shot back.

He asked DeLauro if she is proposing to lock students inside the cafeteria. 

The White House has not directly addressed the waiver proposal but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Monday issued a statement opposing it

"The House bill would undermine the effort to provide kids with more nutritious food and would be a major step backwards for the health of American children, just at the time childhood obesity rates are finally starting to level off,” he said. “USDA has continued to show flexibility in implementing these new standards, and Congress should focus on partnering with USDA, states, schools, and parents to help our kids have access to more healthy food, not less."

DeLauro said after the panel meeting that she would welcome help from the first lady in fighting the provision and that, given the fact similar language got into the report accompanying the 2014 omnibus spending bill, there is no guarantee the Senate would be able to strip it out.

Michelle Obama and Let’s Move Executive Director Sam Kass held a call Monday with activists on school nutrition in which she recapped past success, according to a White House official.