WASHINGTON, May 30, 2014 – Lawmakers on Thursday spent almost half of a four-hour House Appropriations Committee markup debating the national school lunch program guidelines, continuing a battle that’s drawn an unlikely cast of characters: school lunch ladies, produce advocates, anti-obesity crusaders and first lady Michelle Obama.
A $20.9 billion fiscal 2015 agriculture spending bill, approved yesterday by the committee over the objections of Democrats, includes a provision that grants one-year waivers to school nutrition programs operating at a six-month financial loss after the implementation of new school lunch guidelines.
The new rules require schools to serve more whole grain-rich foods, fruits and vegetables and cut down on sugar, sodium and fat.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida joined her Democratic colleagues in opposing the rider, which she said would roll back nutrition gains made in 2010 school lunch reforms. Wasserman Schultz said the waiver and ensuing debate “[masked] the fact that there are many, many school district leaders who seem to not care about what we put in our children’s bodies. And that is something we all have to come to grips with.”
“We do have a country of citizens who ingest things that are horrifically bad for them,” she said.
However, Republican House members, led by Agriculture Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt of Alabama insisted the rider is simply a measure to delay – not an effort to repeal school nutrition standards.
“So the majority does not intend to eliminate the nutrition standards and allow schools to remain out of compliance?” Wasserman Schutlz asked the chairman.
“Not in this bill,” Aderholt said, causing the entire committee room to break into laughter.
On a conference call with reporters earlier this week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he was worried a one-year waiver could become an even longer delay.
“The things that find their way into budget bills continue to stay in budget bills and that is a concern,” Vilsack said.
Michelle Obama, who waded into the school lunch controversy on Tuesday with an open meeting on the provision at the White House, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times Thursday doubling down on her support for the new guidelines. “Our children deserve so much better than this,” she wrote.
The United Fresh Produce Association said it was “deeply disappointed” by the provision’s inclusion in the final bill.
“However, we believe the spirited one and one-half hour debate on an amendment offered by [Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Ranking Member] Sam Farr to protect school meal standards shows that the waiver provision in the current bill is flawed,” Tom Stenzel, the association’s president and CEO said in a statement.
The committee passed a number of other amendments during the markup, including:
- an amendment from Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., which adds $155 million for the Agricultural Research Service Building and Facilities account for the purchase, repair, improvement, or construction of equipment and facilities, offset by a reduction in the Office of the Secretary and the Rural Water and Waste Disposal Account.
- an amendment from Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., which prohibits the use of funds to purchase processed poultry from China for use in school lunch programs. The amendment was adopted on a voice vote.
- an amendment from Rep. Alan Nunnelee, R-Miss., that adds report language encouraging FDA to accept certain types of clear, visible calorie displays on products served through vending machines.
- an amendment from Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., which prohibits funding for inspections of horse slaughter facilities in the U.S. The amendment was adopted on a close vote of 28-22. There is an identical amendment in the Senate’s version of the legislation.
An attempt by Democrats to maintain the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) nutrition program’s provision prohibiting participants from purchasing white potatoes was defeated by a 31-18 margin following strong opposition from Idaho Republican Mike Simpson.
The defeat, by voice vote, represents a significant victory for the potato industry. The Senate Appropriations bill also includes language to allow the white potato into the nutrition program.
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