House vote would allow schools to scrimp on produceIn what fresh produce advocates called a step backward, the House Appropriations Committee approved a plan allowing schools to opt out of nutrition standards that increase fresh fruits and vegetables in meals if districts can show they’re losing money under the standards.

After a nearly two-hour debate May 29 on an amendment by Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., to remove the waiver from the fiscal 2015 funding bill, the amendment failed, with 29 Republicans voting against the amendment and 22 Democrats in favor — voting strictly on party lines.

The School Nutrition Association praised the House Appropriations Committee for preserving the waiver.

“This will not halt the progress in school cafeterias. It is a temporary reprieve to allow schools to catch up,” Leah Schmidt, president of the National Harbor, Md.-based association, said in a statement.

SNA also wants Congress to eliminate the mandate that students must take a fruit or vegetable with meals and relax pending standards for sodium and whole grains in school meals.

The issue of the waiver is not yet settled, though, as the full House will take up the appropriations bill in the next several weeks. In addition, the Senate version of fiscal 2015 agriculture appropriations — yet to be voted on by the full body — does not have the waiver provision. The House and Senate versions must be reconciled before the appropriations bill becomes law with President Obama’s signature.

The lengthy House committee debate highlighted serious reservations about the waiver, Tom Stenzel, president of the Washington,D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association said.

“I’m hopeful that some people can get together before this thing passes the House and do something more similar to what the Senate did,” he said.

Stenzel said he believes there is strong support at USDA and among a majority of House members to find ways to help schools adjust to some of the more technical requirements of the rules regarding sodium and whole grains, while preserving the serving at least a half-cup of fruits and vegetables in school meals. “Flexibility is one thing. Gutting the regulation is something else,” he said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news conference May 28 that the language to give schools a waiver to nutrition standards if they show they are losing money is problematic.

“One of the concerns with the waiver 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 require the USDA to audit books of local school districts to determine if the waiver is legitimate, Vilsack said.

 No spuds for you, kid

Vilsack also said USDA remains opposed to adding potatoes to the Women, Infants and Children fruit and vegetable voucher program, despite language in 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.

“This shouldn’t be driven by economics of an industry,” he said. “It should be driven by the health care of our children.”

 Mark Szymanski, director of public relations for the Washington, D.C.-based National Potato Council, said the House plan would allow the potatoes in WIC in fiscal 2015. The Senate approach would require all fruits and vegetables to be included under WIC and mandate USDA to conduct a review of nutritional value of all fruits and vegetables and make inclusions or exclusions in the program based only on nutritional value.

“We feel that you can put fresh potatoes against any fruit or vegetable and we stack up well,” Szymanski said.