The battle over nutrition standards for school lunches is expected to last through 2015 and produce industry leaders are marshalling allies to help fight for standards that enjoyed bi-partisan support four years ago.
“Politics are running head to head with good policy that was overwhelmingly approved in 2010,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington D.C.
Guenther moderated a teleconference June 26 that included Kyle Kinner, government relations officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts, and Lorelei DiSogra, vice president for nutrition and health at United Fresh.
“Congress is at an impasse but that doesn’t mean the fight has gone away,” DiSogra said.
United Fresh officials are urging members to speak out against Republican-sponsored legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives that would allow waivers for school districts that say serving more fruits and vegetables is too costly.
An update from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows 90% of school districts are already in compliance with the new standards. All three of the teleconference speakers said they haven’t heard a good reason for this year’s passionate partisan debate about the standards, except that Washington D.C. tends to generate such situations.
DiSogra said United Fresh supports an amendment offered by California U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-20th, that would strike the waivers, but that proposal is languishing with the agricultural appropriations bill that Republican leaders pulled from the House floor recently.
In the Senate, a bi-partisan amendment from Sens. John Hoeven, R-Neb., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is a good compromise the United officials said. However, DiSogra and Guenther said they fear it won’t move forward. Like the house version, the Senate appropriations bill is also stalled.
DiSogra said there are only about 25 legislative working days left in the current fiscal year, which means continuing resolutions for funding will likely be necessary and will mean no changes, thus extending the nutrition debate.
Guenther said the July 4th break will be a good opportunity for those in the produce industry to contact their representatives and senators while they are in their home districts.
Kinner said the non-partisan Pew Charitable Trusts have documented widespread support for the standards from an array of groups including the National Parent Teachers Association and the American Medical Association.
“Ultimately this is about children’s health.” Kinner said, adding that some believe school nutrition is a national security issue. He turned to comments from retired Maj. Gen. Tracy Strevey Jr., the former commander of U.S. Army Health Services.
“More than one in five young Americans is too overweight to enlist (and that) is the leading medical reason why young adults cannot join the military,” Strevey has said. “Congress should resist efforts to derail continued implementation of science-based nutrition guidelines for school meals … together we can make sure that America’s child obesity crisis does not become a national security crisis.
DiSogra said another point United Fresh members should share with their legislators is that 19 former presidents of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) are on record as being opposed to waivers.
Guenther said United Fresh will take that message to the SNA convention this summer where the produce association will have a pavilion for the first time. He said United Fresh plans sessions on how to write produce “requests for proposals” as well as sponsoring an ask-the-experts area where school foodservice officials can get tips on how to maximize their produce budgets.