Congressional Republicans are renewing their fight to roll back first lady Michelle Obama’s prized nutrition standards for school meal programs.

As Congress prepares to reauthorize the Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010, set to expire in September, lawmakers are pushing for more relaxed requirements when it comes to the servings of whole grains, sodium content and fruits and vegetables.

{mosads}Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) recalled how he was served a batch of mashed potatoes complying with the nutrition rules during a recent visit to a school in his district.

“They were god-awful,” he said, during a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing on federal child nutrition programs Tuesday. “Then they made me a batch of mashed potatoes under the regulations they have to get to in the next 10 years and they were just terrible.”

With 99,000 schools currently trying to comply with the standards, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Rokita it’s possible to find an entrée he wouldn’t like.

“That’s why we’ve focused on ways and strategies to help school districts do a better job,” he said.

Those strategies, Vilsack said, include bringing chefs in to help schools make more creative meals, providing grants to help schools buy new kitchen equipment and pairing struggling schools with succeeding schools in mentorship programs.

“Mr. Secretary, I’ve found creative people there,” Rokita said. “These weren’t deep fry cooks, OK.”

After explaining that Indiana schools are already substituting ingredients to try and make the food taste better, Rokita let out an exasperated laugh.

“Maybe the chefs could come to our schools in Indiana,” he said.

About 95 percent of schools are reportedly meeting the standards, but GOP lawmakers backed by the School Nutrition Association (SNA) said the provisions have led to an increase in food waste and a dramatic decline in student participation over the last three years.

Committee chairman Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) said schools are serving 1.4 million fewer children every day, and the Agriculture Department estimates that participating school districts will be forced to absorb $3.2 billion in additional compliance costs over a five-year period.

“These regulations have created an environment where students are not getting the nourishment they need, and food and taxpayer dollars wind up in the trashcan,” he said.

SNA is specifically asking Congress to revert back to 2010 standards that require only half of all grains offered to be whole-grain rich, leave sodium levels where they are until research proves further reductions benefit children and do away with the requirement that forces kids to take the half cup of fruit and vegetables with every meal, since most students end up throwing them away.

In addition to food going to waste, Kline said he’s concerned that calorie and portion controls are leaving some students, particularly student athletes, hungry at the end of the day.

“This is not in fairness all you can eat at Applebees,” Vilsack said. “This is a school lunch program.”

Vilsack said students have other options. They can bring snacks from home, buy healthy snacks from school vending machines or take lunch items students discard on food sharing tables. 

“We are dealing with twin issues here,” he said. “We’re dealing with 17 million youngsters who are food insecure. At the same time we are dealing with nearly a third of our youngsters who are either obese or at risk of being obese and indeed our national security is threatened.”

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) said our children are now too obese to enlist in our nation’s military.

“According to one report, our nations has the second highest obesity rate in the world and obesity related illnesses are costing the world a shocking $190 billion a year,” he said. “This not only weakens our economy, but increases our budget deficit.”

These effects related to poor nutrition are preventable and though the nation still has a long way to go, Scott said there are positive signs of progress thanks to the Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act.

“This year’s reauthorization of child nutrition programs should build on the progress we’ve made over the last five years,” he said.

Tuesday’s hearing came as the Food and Drug Administration issued new rules to ban trans fat found in everything from tortilla chips to frozen pizza crust.

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) wanted to know how FDA’s new regulations, which force food producers to phase out partially hydrogenated oils over the next three years, will further impact schools that are already struggling to meet the strict standards.

“I wouldn’t anticipate that this is going to cause significant problems relative to school lunches,” Vilsack said.

Though FDA expects its new regulation to cost the food industry $6.2 billion over the next 20 years, Vilsack said school meals and snacks are already limited to 0 percent trans fat.

Kate Hardiman contributed to this report.

Tags Bobby Scott Matt Salmon Michelle Obama Tom Vilsack

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