Ag Policy Blog

Ag Appropriations Bill Sets up Nutrition Battles

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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The agriculture appropriations bill is setting up to be a battle between first lady Michelle Obama and critics who complain that healthier lunch standards are running kids out of the school lunch program.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Monday released its proposal for USDA and FDA discretionary programs, which would be set at $20.9 billion for the 2015 fiscal year that starts in October.

The bill includes language that would allow schools to seek a waiver from compliance with nutritional standards set in 2010 legislation. Effectively, if a school has been operating at loss for at least six months, then they can get a one-year waiver.

The School Nutrition Association issued a news release supporting the House bill. Leah Schmidt, president of the group, said SNA has been asking Congress to allow some flexibility on the issue. Schmidt is the food-services coordinator for a school district in the Kansas City, Mo., area.

“School nutrition professionals have been on the front lines working to improve school menus, offer a wider variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and encouraging students to make healthier choices in the cafeteria. However, since these standards took effect, more than one million fewer students choose school lunch each day, reducing revenue for school meal programs already struggling to manage the increased cost of preparing meals under the new standards.

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“A temporary waiver would ease the burden on school meal programs, preventing more schools from dropping out of the National School Lunch Program altogether, until Congress can fully discuss these challenges as part of Child Nutrition Reauthorization 2015.”

The Washington Post reported Monday that the first lady would fight any rollback of the nutrition standards. Michelle Obama has made healthy foods her priority in the White House. She told health groups in a conference call on Monday to resist the changes in food standards.…

In another nutrition battle, House appropriators noted that white potatoes would be eligible for purchases under the Women and Infant Children program. This is another political battle between lawmakers from potato-growing states and USDA officials who argue WIC is designed to give women and infants access to fruits and vegetables they might otherwise not buy. Critics argue children already get way too much starch in their diet now because toddlers are more prone to eating French fries than just about any other vegetable.

Other policy riders continue to crop up in the appropriations bill.

The bill includes language continuing to block USDA from implementing provisions under the Packers and Stockyards Act stemming back to the 2008 farm bill. The National Farmers Union forwarded a letter from 168 groups that are opposed to the rider to operations at GIPSA. According to the letter, "This appropriations rider is now blocking a rule that would prohibit companies from retaliating against farmers for exercising their free speech and association rights, including talking to members of Congress or USDA officials about the abuses they experience. The rider also blocks a measure to require companies to provide a farmer, upon request, with the statistical information and data used to calculate the farmer's pay."…

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition criticized cuts to authorized spending levels set in the 2014 farm bill. NSAC stated, "Sadly, the House Subcommittee bill launches an assault on the 2014 Farm Bill passed and signed into law earlier this year.

"First, it slashes funding levels for farm bill conservation and renewable energy programs. It cuts more than 1 million acres from the Conservation Stewardship Program, over $200 million from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and $60 million from the new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. On top of conservation cuts, the House bill slashes funding for the Rural Energy for America program by 40 percent."

Under the bill, EQIP would be funded at $1.39 billion; the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program would be $365 million; CSP would be set at $1.166 billion; and REAP would be $30 million.

House appropriators also are deeply concerned about privacy -- notably their own. The bill released Monday includes a provision preventing USDA, FDA or the Commodity Futures Trading Commission from sharing any information outside their own agencies about "questions or responses to questions that are a result of information requested for the appropriations hearing process." You would think such information should be public record.

Yet, congressional appropriators can thump their chests. They have made sure that no salaries or expenses can be incurred at USDA for nonrecourse marketing loans under the mohair program. How will the industry survive?

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