The eve of the May 29 hearing of the House Appropriations Committee’s fiscal year 2015 agriculture funding bill brought a flurry of press conferences and opposing views on possible Congressional changes to child nutrition standards.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., hosted separate news teleconferences in support of updated school nutrition standards. Both DeLauro and Vilsack vigorously defended school nutrition standards, with DeLauro stating that 90% of schools already comply with the regulations. She said House Republicans were set on weakening nutrition standards for both school meals and for the Women, Infants and Children program.
Also on May 28, The National Harbor, Md.-based School Nutrition Association had a teleconference with eight school nutrition officials seeking more time to adopt nutrition rules. Many participating in the event said student participation in school meals has gone down and costs have gone up since the standards were implemented in the fall of 2012. The group is also seeking an end to mandatory serving of a half a cup of fruits and vegetables at every reimbursable school meal.
Jonathan Dickl, director of school nutrition for Knox County, Tenn., said coming nutrition standards that call for an extra half cup of produce at school breakfasts — beginning next fall — will increase serving costs by 25 to 30 cents and boost yearly produce costs by $900,000.
Older students, especially, don’t always want a fruit or vegetable with their meals, another school foodservice official said.
“At about 25 cents a serving, the mandate to serve a fruit or vegetable has us throwing away money and making kids angry with us,” Dolores Sutterfield, child nutrition director, Harrisburg, Ark., said in a news release from the School Nutrition Association.
But the USDA leader and Democratic lawmakers found fault with the House approach that will allow a school to seek a waiver from the standards.
Vilsack said draft language in the House appropriations fiscal year 2015 agriculture funding bill that would give schools a waiver to nutrition standards if they show they are losing money is problematic.
“One of the concerns with the wavier is how you define and determine if a school district is in fact operating at a loss,” he said. Factors such as assessments against school food budgets for indirect costs for administration, for utilities and other costs can vary widely between districts.
“There is no guarantee that the money that is provided for the nutrition programs is spent solely and completely on nutrition,” he said. Such a waiver would be an administrative nightmare, requiring the USDA to audit books of local school districts to determine if the waiver is legitimate, Vilsack said.
“The reality is that it is a step back, not a step forward,” he said.
Vilsack said the language for the waiver is a retreat from strong bipartisan Congressional support that won passage of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010.
Vilsack also said the USDA remains opposed to adding potatoes to the Women, Infants and Children fruit and vegetable voucher, despite language in both the House and Senate appropriations bills instructing the USDA to do so.
“Medical experts tell us that youngsters don’t consume enough dark green, orange, red vegetables, and the WIC program supplements and provides moms the opportunity to purchase those vegetables they might not purchase to complement the potatoes that are already part of that family’s diet,” he said.
The USDA doesn’t think the inclusion of potatoes is necessary or consistent with the experts, he said.
“Pediatricians know more about children’s health than politicians do,” he said. “This shouldn’t be driven by economics of an industry, it should be driven by the health care of our children,” he said.
While he appreciates that potato growers are capable of producing more potatoes, Americans sill consume about 84 pounds per person on average.
“I think the key here for potato growers is for us to continue to be doing what we are doing in terms of expanding export markets so that potatoes are available to folks that could use them, but not in the WIC program.”