Washington – A congressional food fight is expected today as House GOP lawmakers press for changes in federal nutrition rules that would allow Connecticut schools to opt out of new school lunch standards.
The lunchroom brawl will occur when a House Appropriations Committee considers the 2015 spending bill for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Democrats on the panel, led by Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District and Sam Farr, D-Calif., will try to strip out several proposals, including the one that would grant qualifying school districts an opportunity to postpone enforcement of new school lunch rules imposed by the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
“This is the same Congress that wanted pizza considered a vegetable, and I know something about pizza,” said DeLauro, who is of Italian heritage.
DeLauro and other nutrition advocates say the assault on the federal nutrition standards are being led by the processed food industry, which will lose hundreds of millions of dollars as schools move toward more fruits, vegetables and whole grain products in their cafeterias.
In Connecticut, reimbursable meals served under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) follow the federal nutritional guidelines, the Connecticut Department of Education said. That's about 90 percent of the state's schools.
Stephanie Soechtig, producer of FED UP, a documentary about childhood obesity, joined DeLauro in a press conference Wednesday to condemn the GOP plan as “criminal.”
“We should be leading the way in what we’re serving our children,” she said.
First Lady Michelle Obama joined the advocates this week, telling a group of school nutrition experts “the last thing we can afford to do is play politics with our kids health.”
But the Republican head of the Agriculture Appropriation subcommittee, Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama, said the new standards “should not drive local school nutrition programs under water.”
He was aided by a report by the School Nutrition Association that advocated a “pause” in the federal standards because it said many schools are overwhelmed by the requirements and are seeing dramatically increased costs and waste as children throw uneaten lunches away.
House Republicans are also pressing to change the rules for the Women, Infant and Children’s (WIC) program that provides food to pregnant and nursing mothers and children up to the age of five. The GOP wants to rewrite USDA regulations, which outlawed white potatoes, so that they would be included in the basket of food available to WIC recipients.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association and the March of Dimes, among others, had lobbied the USDA to drop white potatoes from the WIC menu. But Republican lawmakers from potato-growing states want them back in.
The federal WIC program is administered in the state by the Connecticut State Department of Public Health and provides services to about 54,000 women and children each year.
DeLauro accused the Republicans of putting “profits and politics” about nutrition.
Lucy Nolan, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut! also criticized the move.
“White potatoes were taken out for a reason,” Nolan said. Nutritionists "didn’t want people to eat them,” she said.
Besides offering little nutrition, a congressional move to include white potatoes in the list of WIC-eligible foods – which are determined by the USDA and the Institute of Medicine – could lead the nation down a “slippery slope,” Nolan said.
“If Congress can dictate what’s in the WIC package, then it could dictate all kinds of things,” she said.
The House agriculture spending bill would also specify that only rural areas are to benefit from a modest summer demonstration program requested by the Obama administration. It would feed children -- both urban and rural — during those months when school meals are not available.
The House bill would eliminate the $85 million the White House requested for the program and provide money for a new program that would only feed children in rural areas.
“How do we divide up our children into rural and urban?” DeLauro asked.
While she’s expected to provide most of the fireworks in Thursday’s mark up of the bill, DeLauro could not predict whether Democrats, a minority on the panel, would be able to strip out the changes to nutrition programs in the committee.
That means the food fight is likely to continue when the USDA spending bill is considered on the House floor.