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Blog: House Republicans Gut Nutrition Standards Set by Institute of Medicine

May 30, 2014 | By Carolyn Burstein, NETWORK Communications Fellow

House Republicans have inserted language into the 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) appropriations bill that allows schools to opt out of the nutrition standards set by the “2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act” (and introduced in schools in the 2012-13 school year) if they can show the programs lose money over a six-month period. Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, led by Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Sam Farr (D-CA), had tried on May 29th to strip out several proposals including the waivers to postpone school lunch nutrition standards and the potato industry’s demand that white potatoes be added to the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. However, Republicans prevailed and the committee voted Thursday to allow school districts to temporarily opt out of the dietary requirements on a party-line vote.

The 2012 rules activating the nutrition standards require that more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free meals be made available in school lunches, along with a reduction in salt and trans-fats. At the same time, white potatoes were excluded from WIC-approved foods. These changes became law based on the recommendations by the National Academy of Sciences’ highly regarded Institute of Medicine.

As Marion Nestle puts it in her recent post on Food Politics, “As I see it, the food industry couldn’t get its way through the usual rulemaking processes, so it did an end run and got Congress to overturn the work of no less than three committees of the Institute of Medicine.”

Let’s deal with the white potato issue first. The WIC list of approved foods must meet the highest nutritional values and white potatoes, while fine, are less nutritious than some alternative foods, and can be purchased with SNAP funding. The provision to include white potatoes in the WIC-approved list follows strong lobbying by the industry, which is trying hard to undermine healthy reforms made to the WIC program and is hoping to win similar language when the Senate Appropriations Committee considers its own version of the same agriculture bill. It is indeed worried that younger women have moved away from potatoes, but as Mark Bittman of the New York Times said last week: “Let’s recognize that the potato industry can afford to take a step back and let federal dollars enable poor people to choose cauliflower, peas, lettuce and a few other vegetables, and see French fries as an occasional treat, as all of us would be better off doing.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the March of Dimes, among others, have lobbied against the “white potato provision,” but Republican lawmakers, especially those from potato-growing states, want them back in.

The issue of waivers for school lunches affects a larger population. Waiver proponents say that they only want greater flexibility in implementing the standards, but the proposals would more than likely eliminate the standards for those school districts granted waivers because they wouldn’t have to comply with any of the new standards. In addition, there are many ways the waiver could end up being automatically renewed year after year. Allowing waivers would also jeopardize the progress already achieved toward stabilizing childhood obesity.

The issue of waivers can largely be attributed to the lobbying efforts of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), a national organization that represents both school nutrition professionals and companies that sell food to schools. The SNA has advocated a “pause” in the federal standards because it said that many schools are overwhelmed by the requirements and are seeing dramatically increased costs as well as waste because so many children are throwing uneaten lunches away. Representative Robert Aderholt (R-AL), head of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, said the new standards “should not drive local school nutrition programs under water.”

The Washington Post on May 29, 2014, said that former presidents of the SNA have clearly indicated that the organization has come under the greater influence of the handful of large companies that dominate the multibillion-dollar school food industry. Interestingly, as the First Lady has explained, the SNA firmly supported the nutrition standards when the legislation passed in 2010.

DeLauro, Farr and other nutrition advocates believe the assault on the federal nutrition standards is being led by the processed food industry, which will continue to lose hundreds of millions of dollars as schools move toward more fruit, vegetables and whole grain products in their cafeteria. Healthy food initiatives threaten profits and are therefore fought at all costs by the producers of processed food.

Food waste and higher costs for food are indeed problems that must be addressed, but not by relaxing or reducing the standards set for healthier lunches at the same time that our nation is facing a health emergency among our children. We need a solution that will maintain nutrition standards and that helps kids to understand the consequences of what they eat and gets them to choose healthy foods.

One solution to this set of problems is food education, which can be either part of the core curriculum, as advocated by Chef Ann Cooper, who writes “Eat + Run” blogs for U.S. News and World Report, or used as examples in other parts of the curriculum. The key is that kids will never choose an apple over a Pop-Tart, especially if they’ve developed a taste for sugar, salt and fat, unless they’ve learned healthy eating habits. Congressman Sam Farr said recently, “We don’t allow kids to opt out of math or opt out of science because it’s tough. Changing the American diet is fundamental to bringing down health care costs.”

It helps to have certain events, such as food tastings, Junior Chef competitions and salad bar education programs as well as school gardens, to help ease kids’ way into learning about the finer points of healthier meals.

As Chef Ann Cooper says in another blog, if the amount of revenue is decreasing through a lunch program, it is important to remember that the purpose of a school lunch program is not to make money. Its purpose is to feed children nourishing food that gives them energy to focus, concentrate and learn. We do not expect math, science or reading programs to profit a school or even to break even. The same logic we use to explain the significance of money spent on feeding our students’ minds, works for feeding their bodies, too.

Schools should plan for an initial decrease in student participation in a school lunch program after major changes are initiated. After all, transitions are rocky and often difficult. Children who are used to eating French fries will naturally initially balk at a pear replacing salt and fat. But with the education described above, schools will notice a gradual increase in student participation each year as children get used to the changes and develop a taste for fresh fruits and vegetables. With families reinforcing these changes at home, soon healthy food will be the only food the children will know.

Left to their own devices, many children will choose hot dogs, French fries and pizza for every meal, but school should be the place where they learn that this type of choice is a very bad idea. We need to hold the line, even if it’s difficult and some school districts are struggling. Over 90% of school districts are in compliance with the law. There are many ways to help the other 10% rather than to let them ignore the nutrition standards.

As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said, “If we’re going to close the achievement gap in our country, we need to close the nutrition gap.” Healthy school food is just as important as academics for children’s success at school. Mark Bittman is right on target when he points out that workers preparing and serving school lunches are “under-equipped, under-funded and under-staffed.” This point brings us to another part of the solution – healthy food should be prepared by properly trained and paid staff.

Cafeteria workers must be trained in culinary skills that eschew merely opening cans, unwrapping frozen entrees and reheating food. School districts must invest in both fresh food and new equipment. State and federal funding should be available (through grants?) for training programs to prepare workers for a healthy food regime. USDA-proposed rules in January 2014 would introduce minimum education and experience requirements for food service directors and managers. But only eight hours of training is proposed for staff who actually prepare the food and serve the children. This amount of training time will hardly suffice. But at least it is the beginning of professionalizing the school food staff and should also result in higher pay for these workers.

USDA already provides extensive technical assistance to school districts that are having difficulty meeting the new standards and they have demonstrated willingness to offer flexibility administratively, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). The Senate Appropriations Committee, which will take up the USDA bill next week, is requiring the USDA to develop a comprehensive plan to provide enhanced training and technical assistance to help schools comply with the new standards.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IO), who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, issued a statement arguing that the House was putting “the food industry’s bottom line ahead of what’s best for kids.” And there are numerous supporters of this view, including:  The Pew Charitable Trust, which urged the House to drop the provision; First Lady Michelle Obama, telling a group of school nutrition experts “the last thing we can afford to do is play politics with our kids’ health”; the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, Food Policy Action, and the National WIC Association; a group of military leaders who have been concerned about the health of military recruits; and hundreds of organizations that have signed a letter to Congress in support of strong nutrition standards, including the African-American Health Alliance, AFSCME, Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Children’s Defense Fund, Food and Water Watch, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, National Consumers League, National Women’s Law Center, NETWORK, Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, Union for Reform Judaism, United Methodist Women and numerous state and local organizations.

As you see from the above partial list, NETWORK strongly supports the continuation of “The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids’ Act” in the form in which it passed with bipartisan support in 2010 and the rules developed by USDA in 2012. Nutritious food is an essential component of what it means to “promote the general welfare.”