Thursday, November 01, 2012

House Republicans Challenge Obama Administration's School Nutrition Standards

As GOP lawmakers pile on in partisan food fight over standards, White House fully supports school lunch program; Sr. Policy Advisor Sam Kass hails improved nutrition guidelines as a major achievement for the Obama Administration...
House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn) and two other committee members have requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) undertake a study of the Department of Agriculture's school nutrition rules that went effect this fall.  Mandated under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010 that was signed into law by President Obama in December 2010, the standards were championed by First Lady Obama as a centerpiece of the Administration's massive Let's Move! campaign.

In a letter sent on Wednesday, Kline called on the GAO to "evaluate the impact of the new requirements under the National School Lunch Program on "students, schools, and taxpayers," and requested a detailed analysis of USDA's efforts in implementing the guidelines.

"Since the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, state and local officials, parents, and students have raised concerns about a number of these challenges," Kline wrote, "specifically the adequacy of the calorie maximum, the cost of the new requirements, and increased food waste in cafeterias."

USDA's guidelines call for maximum calorie limits depending on grade level, and require children to be served fruits or vegetables at each meal.  They also reduce fat and sodium content in foods, and require lean meat, whole grains, and low- or non-fat dairy products.  The legislation offered the first comprehensive changes to the National School Lunch Program in more than fifteen years.

Committee members Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn) and Kristi Noem (R-SD) co-signed the letter to the GAO.

About 32 million children in close to 100,000 institutions participate in the National School Lunch Program, and the White House fully supports the legislation and the foods offered under the program.

House Republicans have been using the nutrition standards to blast the Obama Administration, calling it a "Nanny State" intervention, and have criticized the Let's Move! campaign as an example of the Administration's over-reach. In September,  Rep. Steve King (R-IA-5) and Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), both members of the House Agriculture Committee, introduced the No Hungry Kids Act, a measure to repeal the calorie limits.

But White House Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass (l) defends the legislation and the National School Lunch Program.

"It is one of the biggest levers we can possibly pull to directly impact the nutrition of kids every day," Kass told Obama Foodorama in an interview about the lunch program, noting that many children get up to fifty percent of their daily calories at school.

"The First Lady and the President personally saw this over the finish line, and the nation is better for it," Kass said. "School lunch will never be the same. We're very very proud of that."
Reps. King and Huelskamp have also promoted a video parody of the calorie limits created by Kansas high school students, and Huelskamp has created a Facebook campaign, Nutrition Nannies.

"The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was written and passed to satisfy the wishes of the First Lady who had the Let's Move Initiative to get our youth in shape," King said in September.  "This is nanny state run amok."

Not so, according to Kass, who maintains that the school lunch guidelines are "a groundbreaking moment for the health and well being of kids everywhere," and are just one part of the larger Let's Move! strategy to help reduce America's childhood obesity rate, which currently hovers at about 17% nationally.

"There's not one thing that we're going to do that will cause an automatic drop" in the prevalence of childhood obesity, Kass said.

"It's a confluence of small and large success that add up to changing the way our kids are nourished."

King, it should be noted, is locked in a tight race for re-election in Iowa, running against Christie Vilsack, wife of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the former First Lady of Iowa.  On Tuesday, King and Huelskamp had lunch with students in Storm Lake, Iowa, and used the outing to further blast the nutrition standards--and the President and Mrs. Obama.

"I saw first-hand how President Obama, his wife, and his administration’s rationing of food to students is completely out of hand. This nanny state has gone overboard in determining what children eat--kids should be able to eat all of the healthy, nutritious school food they want," King said in a press release.

"The ‘No Hungry Kids Act’ puts the power back in the hands of parents and directs the USDA to reevaluate the standards and prohibits the USDA from putting all kids on a diet just because some are overweight," King said.

The Agriculture Department has yet to release its rule under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010 for competitive foods, those items served in school cafeterias in a la carte lines and in vending machines.  Chairman Kline and his colleagues note this in their letter to the GAO, stating "school officials are already questioning the impact of these added changes."

USDA is already late in issuing the rule, according to the lunch legislation guidelines, but one thing is certain:  The partisan battle over school lunch will continue.

*The letter from Chairman Kline and his colleagues [PDF]

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Fodoodorama