Education Committee Republicans Criticize New School Nutrition Standards

Posted October 19, 2012 at 11:49am

The chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee joined GOP critics of new school meal nutrition standards that target obesity, accusing the Agriculture Department of pursuing a “one-size-fits-all policy that ties the hands of local school lunch providers.”

In a letter Thursday, Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., and committee members Kristi Noem, R-S.D., and Phil Roe, R-Tenn., cited media stories about school athletes complaining that the maximum meal calories of 850 left them hungry. They also cited complaints from some school meal operators that they are losing money because the required servings of vegetables and fruits are more expensive and students are spurning the new meals.

Although the Agriculture Department oversees the school lunch and breakfast programs, Kline’s committee is the authorizing panel in the House. In the Senate, the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee oversees the programs.

The department issued the school meal rules as part of a child nutrition reauthorization law (PL 111-296) Congress cleared in 2010. The legislation calls for the first change in 15 years to school meals and puts a greater emphasis on vegetables and fruits, but left the agency to set specific details with advice from an Institute of Medicine report. School lunch operators and school districts warned that the additional reimbursement level under the law was inadequate. The department received more than 132,000 comments on the proposed meal rules, including criticisms that the department was going too far with limits on calories, grains and proteins.

Complaints started surfacing with the start of the new school year. Reps. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., introduced legislation last month to repeal the nutrition standards and eliminate the cap on calories.

Kline, Noem and Roe did not call for repeal in their letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. They did, however, request that his department respond by Nov. 2 to questions such as what is being done to publicize the new requirements, whether studies will be done to assess how the new rules affect food waste and what steps the department is taking to reduce the cost of implementing changes to school lunch and breakfast.

Kline also asked that committee staff receive regular updates from the Agriculture Department on its responses to school districts.

Vilsack has said schools are being advised about a federally subsidized snack program they may be able to use to provide additional food to students who say they are hungry. The snacks, however, must meet certain nutrition standards.

The School Nutrition Association, which represents school meal providers and their suppliers, is forwarding complaints and concerns from its members to the Agriculture Department for resolution.