Wednesday, 16 November 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.

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