A couple of months ago, we discussed a proposed US Department of Agriculture (USDA) rule that would have limited starchy vegetables, such as potatoes and corn, counting as vegetable servings under the National School Lunch Program. The proposal — part of a nutrition requirement overhaul mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 — stated that only two half-cup servings of starchy vegetables per week could count as vegetable servings. This change was meant to prod schools into serving a wider range of vegetables — especially dark orange and leafy green ones, which would have gotten new minimum serving requirements. Currently, many schools serve French fries as a way to fulfill federal vegetable requirements. Furthermore, the USDA proposed that half a cup of tomato paste, rather than just two tablespoons, be required to count as a vegetable serving so that frozen pizza (without any vegetable toppings) could no longer count as a vegetable.
But last week, in a spending bill covering the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, Congress did away with these requirements by stating that no money could be used to implement them. As described in a Reuters article, the first blow to the new rules came in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives (where all spending bills must originate) when a subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee inserted language into the bill that blocked their funding. Rep. Sam Farr of California, the leading Democrat on the panel, objected to interfering with the USDA’s rules, according to the article. Nevertheless, he supported the overall spending bill, as did most members of both parties. The full House voted only on the overall spending bill, not on individual contents like blocking the USDA rules.
Then in the Senate, a bipartisan group of senators led by Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, proposed an amendment blocking funds for any rule that “sets any maximum limits on the serving of vegetables in school meal programs.” According to an article at Produce News Daily, Sen. Collins declared on the Senate floor that “a school could not have served a baked potato and an ear of fresh corn in the same week” under the USDA’s proposed rules, calling this “an absurd result.” This amendment was mostly just a political statement, since the bill already contained the House’s language denying funding for the USDA’s proposed rules. It was approved by voice vote, without individual votes recorded. The overall bill then passed overwhelmingly, and President Obama signed it into law.
As the Reuters article notes, the House was heavily lobbied by the food industry to prevent the USDA from taking action — particularly by the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI), which represents manufacturers of both pizza and French fries. An AFFI spokesman noted the group’s opposition to rules that “force companies … to change their products in a way that would make them unpalatable to students.” The Senate amendment was cosponsored largely by senators from farm states, where potato farmers may be an important constituency.
What do you think — was Congress right to block rules leading to “an absurd result,” or standing in the way of better school nutrition? Would students eat more leafy green and orange vegetables if they were served, or would most of them simply throw them out, as some opponents of the USDA rules claimed? Should President Obama have signed the overall spending bill? Leave a comment below!