Lawmakers argue over school meal rules in House ag spending bill

By Derrick Cain

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 21, 2014 - Nutrition assistance programs are a familiar battlefront in Congress, but the fighting is usually over spending levels. It was a different story Tuesday when a House subcommittee met and approved a FY 2015 funding bill for USDA and the FDA, but not before panel Democrats objected to several GOP riders, particularly one that would provide waivers for schools that can prove economic hardship to delay complying with USDA meal requirements.

Over the past two years, USDA has made changes to school meal programs that were promoted by first lady Michelle Obama, requiring more servings of fruit and vegetables and less sodium, among other provisions.

USDA says 90 percent of schools are in compliance with the regulations, but Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., said the waiver would remove the financial burden some schools are facing to satisfy government requirements while also getting children to eat what is served to them.

Lets Talk Food

“I've been talking to lunch ladies that do all this work and then see it all thrown in the garbage at the end of the day,” Aderholt said. “For schools suffering economic hardship, this waiver gives them the flexibility they're asking for.”

However, Ranking Member Sam Farr, D-Calif., said the bill allows schools to waive the school meal regulations, but still keep government funds provided for the School Lunch Program.

“I think Congress is going to get criticized for this,” Farr said. “They get to keep the money for fruits and vegetables but don't have to buy them.”

Although Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said the bill's mandatory spending levels for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as well as the food assistance program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), were sufficient, she opposed language that would allow participants in WIC to buy white potatoes.

“This change violates the purpose of the WIC program, to only include foods based on documented nutritional deficiencies,” which is not shown for white potatoes in Institute of Medicine data, Lowey said.

In the end, the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture passed the bill providing $20.9 billion in discretionary funding for the two agencies for the year starting Oct. 1. The total bill, including mandatory spending, came to $142.5 billion.

The subcommittee's Senate counterpart, controlled by Democrats, also passed a spending bill for USDA and FDA on Tuesday, but without the waiver provision for school lunches.

However, Republicans on the panel said they would offer an amendment to allow white potatoes into WIC when the full Senate Appropriations Committee considers the bill on Thursday.

“In an arbitrary decision by the USDA, white potatoes are the only fresh vegetable excluded from that program,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. She said USDA's WIC provisions follow older Institute of Medicine data instead of the more recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The Senate subcommittee's FY2015 appropriations bill totals $20.6 billion in discretionary spending for USDA and FDA, $90 million less than in 2014. That includes $6.6 billion for WIC, which is $93 million below FY 2014.

Additionally, Democrats in the House and Senate objected to the $218 million funding level in the House bill for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), which is $3 million above FY 2014 levels, but $62.4 million below President Obama's request.

“The House bill vastly underfunds the [CFTC], which is tasked with making sure our financial markets do not suffer another collapse like they did in 2008,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said in a statement.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, joined organizations including the U.S. Cattlemen's Association and the National Farmers Union in objecting to the House bill's blockage of the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) rulemaking. The rider would force USDA to rescind most components of its 2011 GIPSA rule, which implements 2008 farm bill regulations related to livestock and poultry marketing.

Although Aderholt noted the House bill provides $3.8 million more than the president requested for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., voted against the measure, saying more funds are needed for food safety efforts, including FDA's implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Conservation programs would also take a hit in the House version. The subcommittee bill cuts more than 1 million acres from the Conservation Stewardship Program, reducing funding by $109 million. The bill also cuts over $200 million from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and $60 million from the new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, notes the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC).

Stabenow, the NSAC and organizations representing renewable energy stakeholders also criticized the House bill for reducing mandatory spending levels for energy programs agreed to in the 2014 Farm Bill. (See below).

“When Congress passes laws with strong bipartisan majorities, the appropriations bills must reflect the will of Congress and the letter and the spirit of those laws,” Stabenow said.

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