Monday, December 06, 2010

Sec. Vilsack's Letter To Congress: School Lunch Bill Won't Ban Fundraisers That Include Sweets

On dousing inflammatory rhetoric about the Obama administration as Nanny State Food Police...
After the House passed landmark child nutrition legislation last week, the AP published a story that fanned the flames of fear swirling in the culture that the Obama administration intends to be one large, coordinated battalion of Food Police. The story maintained that once President Obama signs the legislation into law, bake sales and sweets-based fundraisers could be banned from schools. Thanks to AP's wide syndication, the story appeared in countless news outlets with headlines that ranged from "Hold The Brownies! Bill Could Limit Bake Sales" to "Stop The Chocolate Chip Cookies! Hold The Pizza! Bill Could Quash School Bake Sales," and is still getting reprinted today. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has made it clear that banning bake sales is not the intent of USDA, which will set school nutrition guidelines under the new legislation. (Above: Vilsack at a Let's Move! event)

Section 208 of S. 3307, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, grants USDA the ability to set nutrition standards for all foods served at schools during the school day, including in vending machines, snack bars, and other "similar venues." However, in the AP story, opponents are quoted discussing the "ban" as if it is a guarantee.

"Limiting bake sales is so narrow-minded," parent Laura Shortway told AP. "This could be a real train wreck for school districts," Lucy Gettman of the National School Boards Association said.

"Public health groups pushed for the language on fundraisers," AP notes. Sarah Palin, who recently brought cookies to Plumstead Christian Academy in Pennsylvania, to protest government regulation of school foods, is mentioned. Margo Wootan, a public health advocate who is adamantly against selling sweets on school grounds, is quoted in favor of the ban. Wootan's organization, Center For Science in The Public Interest, has done things like file a class-action lawsuit against Denny's resturants for their menu contents.

The AP story does note that Sec. Vilsack sent a letter to Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Chair of the House Education & Labor Committee, in which Vilsack said that he's not in favor of a ban on fundraisers, but then the story qualifies this by warning that the USDA has yet to set the new standards. The story is still causing a wildfire of outrage across the internet and commercial media.

In his letter, Vilsack noted that there will be exemptions for school fundraisers, and deems this in keeping with the overall Congressional intent to create healthier school food.

What Sec. Vilsack actually wrote in his letter:

The Congressional intent is clear that the purpose of Section 208 in the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act is to upgrade the nutritional quality of certain foods sold in schools outside of the school meal programs. As such, USDA would use this authority to propose nutrition standards through the regulatory process, which will allow for public comment by school administrators and all other interested parties.

However, USDA agrees with and respects the intent of Congress to permit exemptions for school approved fundraisers -- including bake sales or other occasional or infrequent fundraisers.

With respect to concessions at sporting events, depending on the particular school schedule, the majority of these events would likely fall outside of the school day, and thus beyond the authority granted by the bill. Again, USDA has no intention of going further than the Congressional directive on this issue.

Once the legislation is signed into law by President Obama, USDA has a year to write the new nutritional guidelines for school foods. There's no looming, pandemic ban on sweets being sold at fundraisers, in part because that public comment period will likely generate loads of fodder for the USDA to chew on. The USDA will announce the public comment period shortly, according to a spokesman.

>A summary of the new legislation is here.

The new legislation is a centerpiece of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign. But the campaign, by the way, has no program of banning sweets, either, although it has caused an ongoing outcry from right-wing commentators/entertainers, too. The First Lady recently gave some nice pushback to the critics, with a focus on complainer in chief Sarah Palin. As if to reinforce the point that treats are perfectly fine--and perfectly American--Mrs. Obama publicly consumed cookies last week as she unveiled the 2010 White House Holiday Decorations. And the White House put out the yummy recipe for the Holiday Gingerbread Cookies, too. (Mrs. Obama in action at the holiday preview)

Cookies, cupcakes, and brownies are a traditional part of American life, and there's no Food Police campaign by the Obama administration to "ban" these, despite all the lather in right wing media. The fundamental Obama idea is basic: Citizens should consume treats in moderation, so everyone can live long enough--free of diet-related disease--to see their grandchildren enjoy these, too. It's a basic idea, but apparently revolutionary, in a culture that has a large population that has started to equate the right to bear full-fat cookies with the right to bear arms.

*Top photo by EGK/Obama Foodorama; second by Helena Bottemiller for Obama Foodorama