Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Making sure schools can serve our children badly

Although appropriations bills are supposed to be about spending -- not policy-making -- Congress took extra special care this week to make sure child nutrition programs do not have to follow the very reasonable and temperate guidelines recommended by the Institute of Medicine.

The conference committee report for next year's agricultural appropriations overturns key elements of USDA's proposed guidelines for child nutrition programs.  The proposed guidelines had included strong support for whole grains, a recommended limit on salt, and a stipulation that not too much of the vegetables served would be white potatoes.  Currently, school lunch programs contain far more salt than recommended limits, and many school systems use french fries and other forms of white potatoes as by far the dominant vegetable.

In a step that reminds us all of the Reagan administration's heroically foolish effort to define ketchup as a vegetable, the appropriations committees also intervened to make sure that the tomato puree in pizza counts toward vegetable requirements.

USDA officials were sharply critical, and I imagine that the hard-working staff throughout the department are upset.  The Associated Press coverage says:
USDA spokeswoman Courtney Rowe said Tuesday that the department will continue its efforts to make lunches healthier.

"While it's unfortunate that some members of Congress continue to put special interests ahead of the health of America's children, USDA remains committed to practical, science-based standards for school meals," she said in a statement.
It is fun to read the fine print of the conference committee report (.pdf).  See sections 743 and 746 on page H7443.  Although they have no expertise in meals programs or nutrition, the appropriations committee members were quite willing to do the food industry's bidding on these arcane provisions:
SEC. 743. None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to implement an interim final or final rule regarding nutrition programs under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (42 U.S.C. 1751 et seq.) and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 (42 U.S.C. 1771 et seq.) that—
(1) requires crediting of tomato paste and puree based on volume;
(2) implements a sodium reduction target beyond Target I, the 2-year target, specified in Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, ‘‘Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs’’ (FNS–2007–0038, RIN 0584– AD59) until the Secretary certifies that the Department has reviewed and evaluated relevant scientific studies and data relevant to the relationship of sodium reductions to human health; and
(3) establishes any whole grain requirement without defining ‘‘whole grain.’’
A graduate student and I are taking a look at the diversity of comments that were submitted in response to USDA's proposed guidelines.  I will do a follow-up post in a couple weeks, noting which organizations suggested the policy reversals that Congress made this week.

In my children's schools, I see the need for well-written and reasonable guidelines.  The status quo is not good enough.  I believe the IOM and USDA did the best possible job in balancing nutrition and economic considerations.  Readers know very well that I will speak up against government overreach.  But these guidelines did not look to me like government overreach.  They looked judicious.

As a policy researcher, I think the public interest would have been better served by deferring to IOM and USDA.  As a parent, I am angry about Congress' intervention.  It seems clear that Congress is doing the food industry's bidding at the expense of our children.

3 comments: said...

Parke, the big story the media have missed is that these USDA guidelines are not a product of the Obama admidnistration nor did they originate at the USDA. You can trace them back to 2004, when Congress itself mandated that the USDA devise school meal standards that align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Those guidelines in fact call for more balance in the American diet--meaning more green and orange vegetables over white potatoes--as well as more whole grains and less salt.

USDA contracted the job of carrying out Congress' mandate to the Institute of Medicine, where a panel of experts released the proposed guidelines in October 2009. The USDA embraced them in toto, publishing them as a proposed rule last January.

What the ag committee has done is nothing less than overturn years of work by the USDA and scientific committee to comply with Congress' original wishes. And thanks to the lobbying efforts of the processed food industry, school meals may once again be in opposition to the Dietary Guidelines all Americans are urged to follow.

You can read about it here:

and here:

Parke Wilde said...

Yes, we could have added that deferring to IOM would serve the public interest AS CONGRESS ITSELF ORIGINALLY INTENDED. See also our earlier coverage of the Slow Cook's investigations in this area.

Nia Hampton said...

The obvious lack of care for the welfare of American students concerning their diet is disheartening, but not surprising. There is evidence all over that there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to the treatment of our youth in cases such as this, and it will start when politicians who serve corporations more so than citizens are no longer elected.