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School nutrition dominates Capitol Hill action on USDA budget

WASHINGTON — First Lady Michelle Obama blasted lawmakers May 27 for "playing politics with kids' health" after some members of Congress voted to roll back the school nutrition guidelines.

A House subcommittee approved its U.S. Department of Agriculture spending bill that would allow schools that demonstrate economic hardship to apply for waivers from the new standards during the 2014-15 school year.

The issue has become a powder keg on Capitol Hill during the debate over USDA's fiscal 2015 spending measure, and Obama took the opportunity during a meeting with school nutrition officials to attack critics of the revamped guidelines, which would double the amount of fruits and vegetables served each day.

But some members of Congress are looking to make their own changes.

"I continually hear from my schools in Alabama about the challenges and costs they are facing and their desperation for flexibility and relief so they can operate a program serving healthy foods the kids will eat," said Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over USDA's budget.

The legislative fix was met with fierce opposition from Reps. Sam Farr (D-CA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) during the subcommittee markup.

Farr called the change in nutrition standards "hard to swallow," and pointed out that schools could stop serving added fruits and vegetables and keep the federal money. More than 90 percent of schools are having no trouble meeting the new nutrition standards, and USDA has pledged to work with the other schools, he said.

Two days later, a Senate committee voted on a compromise amendment that would help schools adjust to new nutrition standards but without allowing schools to opt out of the new standards that require more fruits and vegetables in school meals.

Spearheaded by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), the amendment would require technical changes on sodium contained in the federally supported meals, require a report on the acceptable range whole grain products and come up with a plan to provide schools with training and technical assistance.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) advocated for waivers to directly help schools that cannot meet the standards. Harkin said he would not support "blanket waivers," prompting Hoeven to agree to the compromise amendment at this time. The bill still has to be considered by the full Senate.

"We commend the Senate Appropriations Committee for its sensible resolution of debate over implementation of the 2012 school meal regulations," Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of the United Fresh Produce Association, said in a statement released after the vote. "Now that a sensible, bipartisan solution has prevailed in the Senate, we encourage all players to step back from the debate and come together to better help schools meet these simple fruit and vegetable standards. The fresh produce industry stands ready to support the School Nutrition Association and all of its members in implementing the fruit and vegetable requirements."

The Senate Appropriations Committee also voted to add white potatoes to the supplemental feeding package supplied to Women, Infants & Children recipients, an amendment offered by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). Collins said the nutritious commodity had been unfairly excluded.

As part of a compromise, the amendment would not allow vegetables with added sugars, fats or oils from being purchased with WIC vouchers, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture would have to conduct an evaluation of the nutrient value of all fresh fruits and vegetables to determine what should be in the package.

Harkin adamantly opposed the amendment, saying this would be the first time in the WIC's 40-year history that Congress had overruled experts on the recommended food package, and that white potatoes should be excluded until USDA completes its report.