In school lunch waiver debate, a preview of a bigger food fight

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 11, 2014 - A lot of ink has been spilled - both within the agriculture press and way outside of it - on school lunch nutrition guidelines and their funding. An agriculture spending bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee and set to considered by the full House today would grant controversial one-year waivers to school nutrition programs operating at a six-month financial loss after the implementation of new school lunch guidelines in the fall of 2012. The new rules require schools to serve more whole grain-rich foods, fruits and vegetables and cut down on sugar, sodium and fat.

But interviews with a number of insiders - folks in the food industry, in education, as well as lawmakers and lobbyists - indicate that the waiver might only be the beginning of a larger discussion on child nutrition and ultimately, a much larger food fight.

Indeed, the child nutrition law requiring the school lunch rules -the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010 - is up for reauthorization in 2015. The Senate Agriculture Committee's first hearing on the bill is slated for Thursday.

Lets Talk Food

Opponents of the waiver say other attempts may follow to weaken guidelines authorized by the child nutrition legislation, including rules for the Smart Snacks in Schools program (which regulate “competitive foods” sold in school vending machines, a la carte and in school stores) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), among others.

That suggestion seems all but confirmed by last month's House Appropriations Committee markup. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz, D-Fla., pushed Agriculture Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., to confirm that the one-year wavier would really only least for one year.

“So [House Republicans] do not intend to eliminate the nutrition standards and allow schools to remain out of compliance?” Wasserman Schultz asked Aderholt.

“Not in this bill,” Aderholt said, to laughs.

The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act has many detractors - from conservatives who call its guidelines yet another example of the “nanny state,” to the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which insists the rules just aren't pragmatic. Even schools in Michelle Obama's former “backyard,” the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, have decided it's more cost effective to drop out the federal school lunch program than meet all of the regulations and deal with excessive food waste.

But before politicians can truly begin to grapple with the bill's reauthorization, however, they'll have to deal with another complication: politics.

Oversight of HHFKA in the House is in the authority of its Education and the Workforce Committee. That body's ranking member, George Miller, D-Calif., is a perennial supporter of stricter school lunch guidelines. He's also retiring at the end of the year.

The situation in the Senate is also up in the air. There, the Agriculture Committee oversees the bill. Should the Democrats maintain their majority in the Senate, Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., could retain her chairmanship. Under her leadership in the agriculture committee, the legislation might not see much change.

But if the Senate flips, leadership could move to a Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., should he survive a strong primary challenge from Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel and not decide to return to the appropriations committee. Otherwise, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts could be at the helm.

The policy issues are similarly murky, though a number of Washington groups say they have begun to organize.

“We're so deep into the last reauthorization, it's hard to believe that the next one is already looming,” Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in an interview. She says CSPI has met with a number of coalition partners to plan what will be a defense of HHFKA as its currently written, though the organizations' talking points have yet to be fully fleshed out.

Nutrition wonks should expect, however, to hear the bill's supporters quote statistics from USDA showing that over 90 percent of schools report they are successfully meeting school lunch standards. A Harvard School of Public Medicine study indicating that the new federal standards have led to increased fruit and vegetable consumption (by 23 percent and 16.2 percent per student, respectively) has also bolstered the supporters' cause.

Christin Driscoll, a federal lobbyist with the National Education Association and a lead on school nutrition issues, said in an interview that she expects the coalition to ask for an expansion of the summer food program, which provides meals for poor children when school is out for the year. Driscoll said she expects NEA, along with CSPI, will also push for language strengthening training for school food service personnel and providing more funds for school kitchen equipment and infrastructure and general school nutrition education.

On the other side of the issue, SNA says it will probably continue the effort it started with the appropriations waiver push. The organization, which represents 55,000 school nutrition professionals, hopes to provide schools with more flexibility in dealing with government nutrition guidelines. In the group's 2014 policy paper - which it says grows organically out of consultations with its membership - SNA advocates for a reduction in the required whole-grain rich requirements, abatement in sodium reductions until the issue has been studied more thoroughly, and the removal of the requirement that all students select a half a cup serving of a fruit or vegetable as part of reimbursable breakfast or lunch program.

“There's a good chance that those [policy points not resolved in appropriations] will move to the next paper (for 2015),” said Cathy Schuchart, vice president of SNA's Child Nutrition and Policy Center.

The sodium issue, particularly, will be one to watch. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a policy document overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) but supported by USDA, will be updated in 2015 - and those updates could include game-changing recommendations on sodium. That revision could change the guidelines coming out of HHFKA, said policy analyst Roger Szemraj, a principal at OFW Law.

Another issue to watch: potatoes. Both the House and Senate Appropriations marks would allow WIC participants to purchase white potatoes, which some health advocates say allow beneficiaries to dodge better-for-you vegetables, like leafy greens. The child nutrition reauthorization could change that rule permanently.

For all the whispers, however, at least one major nutrition player says it has yet to step into the child nutrition reauthorization ring. Asked Tuesday how his office was preparing for the bill, Sam Kass, first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! policy director, said he hadn't even begun to consider it.

“Our focus is on appropriations,” he said. 

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