Senate Democrats enlist military to back school lunch standards

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 13, 2014 -- The Senate Agriculture Committee hosted school and military leaders Thursday during a hearing to support the Obama administration's school meal reforms in the face of efforts by House Republicans to ease certain nutrition requirements.

Lets Talk Food

Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said the hearing is part of an effort to update child nutrition laws, which were last reauthorized in 2010, including the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010. She said among those who are asking that the standards be upheld are officials from the armed forces who say they will “strengthen our nation's military preparedness.”

Retired Air Force General Richard E. Hawley told the committee rising obesity rates in children make them less likely to qualify for military service as adults. Between 2006 and 2011, the military had to turn away 62,000 people because of their weight. “That is the equivalent of 30 combat wings in the Air Force,” he said. 

Hawley also said about 1,200 enlistees are discharged every year due to weight problems, and it costs the military $90 million to train and recruit replacements.

According to Stabenow, the nation spends about $14 billion a year to treat obesity and weight-related diseases in children. She said improving school meals could help children become healthier adults. “For many children a healthy lunch can form the foundation for a lifetime of good health,” she said. 

The agriculture spending bill being considered by the GOP-controlled House would allow school districts with meal programs operating at a loss to seek one-year waivers to certain federal nutrition requirements. The new rules require schools to serve more whole grain-rich foods, fruits and vegetables and cut down on sugar, sodium and fat. The House began debating its bill yesterday but delayed a vote on the measure, including any amendments that would seek to change the waiver provision, until later this month.

Otha Thornton, president of the National Parent Teacher Association, told lawmakers at the Senate hearing that schools are “making exceptional progress in the nutritional quality of the meals they are serving to our kids” through the requirements of the HHKFA.

“There have been challenges along the way, but that's to be expected,” he said.  

Those challenges include criticism from House Republicans who say the law is an example of government overreach. The School Nutrition Association, representing school nutrition officials, estimates that about 1 million fewer students participated in the school lunch program last year, partly due to schools deciding it's more cost effective to drop out of the National School Lunch Program altogether.

However, the USDA says over 90 percent of schools report they are successfully meeting the school lunch standards.

During the hearing, Stabenow indicated she and other Senate Democrats would not accept delays in school meal changes. She said Congress should be thinking of the “big picture” when it comes to school nutrition programs, including stronger national security, economic strength and educational success. 

“We want to move forward,” Stabenow said. “We don't intend to move backward.”

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