By Erik Wasson - 05/21/14 06:00 AM EDT
More than a million kids confronted by healthier school lunches are turning up their noses, leaving the cafeteria and heading out to get a burger instead.
The difficulty in getting students to eat lower-fat, lower-sodium meals is at the center of a food fight between House Republicans and first lady Michelle Obama that erupted this week.
Childhood obesity has spiraled in recent decades, and the first lady has made the fight against it a signature issue. Democrats say stemming the epidemic will cut healthcare costs and keep the armed forces functioning.
But Agriculture Department statistics show the number of school children in the National School Lunch Program dropped from 31.8 million in 2011 to 30.7 million in 2013.
School boards are asking Congress to allow schools to opt out. Some schools are raiding their teaching budgets to cover the costs of mounds of wasted fruits and vegetables, Lucy Gettman of the National School Boards Association said.
“Every school is probably impacted a little bit differently ... there isn’t comprehensive data available,” she said. She noted that one school district in Alaska reported having to transfer $135,000 from its education budget to meet the new requirements — and that the incident was far from unique.
Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association, which represents nonprofit lunch providers in the National School Lunch program, said data show 1,445 schools have dropped out of the program since the standards went into effect as costs mount.
Lawmakers acted this week. A House spending bill approved by a subcommittee on Tuesday would force the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to give a temporary waiver to school lunch programs that can show they were operating at a net loss for the last six months. That provision is supported by the National School Boards Association, as well as the School Nutrition Association. They also support other efforts, including a bill by Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) to stop imposition of more stringent standards coming down the pike.
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 requirements. He said a big problem is that students are refusing to eat the healthier 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.
Backers of the nutrition standards say more than 90 percent of school districts are complying successfully and that Republicans want to relax the rules as a carve-out to interest groups in the food industry.
“The evidence says this is doable,” said child nutrition expert Jessica Donze Black of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
She said that the best way to deal with the struggling schools would be to study what they are doing wrong. She said multiple factors could be pushing students out of the program, and that technical assistance to help schools revamp how they present food and organize lunch lines could make a big difference.
Supporters of the standards noted that the USDA gives a higher reimbursement for lunches including the healthier choices and pointed on Tuesday to an announcement by the department that it would allow schools to obtain a two-year delay in implementing a whole-grain standard coming into effect.
The USDA said complaints that schools could not find whole-grain pastas that did not fall apart in the giant cauldrons used to prepare school meals were legitimate.
“The USDA has worked really hard to try to help with the implementation,” Black said.
House panel member Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who voted “no” on the bill, said the provision is a carve-out.
“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 asked.
“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.”
DeLauro said that she hopes the first lady comes out strongly against the waiver provision to help shore up opposition.
The White House indicated she is prepared to do so at some point.
“The first lady has from day one made the health of our children a top priority, and that means keeping the pressure on to ensure that school nutrition standards already implemented by 90 percent of our schools stay intact. The first lady and this administration believe that every decision we make should be guided by sound science and hard evidence, not politics or special interests, particularly when it comes to the health of our children,” spokesman Jay Carney said.
The key battleground could be the Senate.
The Senate Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday approved companion spending legislation that does not contain the waiver provision.
But subcommittee Chairman Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said he is open to amendments at a full committee markup on Thursday.
“Certainly if people are going to offer amendments I’ll look at those,” he said.
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) told reporters he is not planning to offer a waiver amendment but will offer two other provisions aimed at helping school lunch programs cope with the nutrition standards.
One would freeze increasingly stringent requirements on sodium levels in lunches and another would freeze the whole grain requirement at 51 percent rather than approving the requirement to increase to 100 percent of grains.
He said he supports the waiver but his language does not include it.
“At this point I don’t know that I can pass it through the committee,” he said. “I want to be careful here because I’ve got some things I think I can get passed.”
Justin Sink contributed.