Food politics for 2015 are off to a crazy start in Congress, where January 2nd saw the introduction of legislation to ban hot food, but allow soda, candy and energy drinks, in school lunch programs. Granted, the legislation, introduced on the last day of the 113th Congress by a Congressman who lost his re-election bid, was never intended to pass. Even its name, the “Michelle Obama Nutritional Act” was clearly meant only as a dig against the First Lady’s vocal support for better school nutrition.
But given the enthusiasm among Republicans for gutting school lunch standards, is this joke legislation actually funny?
The Michelle Obama Nutritional Act, otherwise known as H.R. 5891, was introduced by outgoing Texas Congressman Steve Stockman, who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2014 and will not be returning for the 114th Congress which began January 3rd.
Apparently a fan of ironic titles for legislation, Stockman two years ago introduced H. R. 35, The Safe Schools Act, intended to “restore safety to America’s schools” by repealing laws creating gun free zones around schools. Stockman blamed such laws for an increase in school shootings, proclaiming that “Our schools are safer when peaceable citizens are allowed to defend themselves from the irrational and dangerous…Armed citizens save lives.”
Because children will never really be safe at school until every Dora the Explorer backpack has a gun in it.
That bill was referred to the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations in January 2013, and has not been heard from since.
No doubt the Michelle Obama Nutritional Act, which was referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on the same day that it was introduced, will meet a similar fate. The legislation, which its author amusingly claimed would increase the standards for school lunches, in fact proposed that “The nutritional and calorie standards of purchasing for the National School Lunch Program shall be the same as those defined for purchases under the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.”
The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (otherwise known as SNAP, or food stamps, or CalFresh in California) allows virtually any food or drink to be purchased; the only items prohibited are alcoholic beverages, food to be consumed at the point of purchase, and hot food.
Imposing the same “standards” on the school lunch program would allow candy, soda, energy drinks, all forms of junk food, and pretty much anything else currently disallowed by school meal regulations, to be sold or served to school children; the only items prohibited would be the main components of most school lunch programs, which is hot food to be consumed on site. In keeping with SNAP standards, hot food, and anything to be eaten on site (at school) would be banned from school meal programs by Stockman’s bill.
Get the joke? This witty former Congressman has named a bill that would decimate a meal program aimed at supporting proper nutrition and health for the poorest children in the country after the only First Lady to ever embrace the issue of improving school meals. That’s how far some Republicans are willing to go to show their disdain for All Things Obama.
Yet Stockman is hardly alone in his efforts to undermine the nutritional integrity of federal school meal programs. Working hand in hand with the junk-food-sponsored School Nutrition Association, some Republicans have been working hard to roll back new healthy meal standards included in the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA), which for the first time prioritized feeding school children fresh and nutritious meals rather than cheap processed junk.
As my colleague Bettina Elias Siegel has explained on her widely read blog The Lunch Tray, 2014 efforts by Republicans to undo the fruit and vegetable requirements of the HHFKA were unsuccessful. However, the CRomnibus spending bill did include a provision allowing school districts that could show “hardship” to avoid using more whole grains in school meals, and froze allowable sodium levels that had been set to go down this year.
Siegel correctly points out that the real fight will come later this year, when it is time for Congress to revisit the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which covers virtually all federal feeding programs for low income children. Controlled in both houses by Republicans, Congress will have another chance to decimate the nutritional improvements of the past several years, which have been praised by public health officials and opposed by Big Food companies that manufacture pizza and other school lunch staples.
Based in Houston, Siegel has seen her share of zany Texas lawmaking, including the famous Safe Cupcake amendment that guaranteed parents the right to bring junk food to school for parties. But she sees this effort to undo healthy food rules for children nationwide as far more dangerous.
“Birthday cupakes brought to school will affect 25 kids at a time,” Siegel explains. “Gutting school meals will undermine the health of 31 million kids, each and every day.
“Congressional Republicans will no doubt characterize their goals as simply ‘seeking flexibility for schools,’ but let’s be 100% clear about what’s going on here. The food-industry-funded School Nutrition Association has found a sympathetic ear among conservative politicians, many of whom would love nothing more than to undermine this ‘Big Government’ program, especially since it’s been so closely associated with First Lady Michelle Obama.
“But if the Institute of Medicine’s science-based nutritional standards for school meals are rolled back,” she says, “it’s our kids who will pay the price.”
Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.Soda Tax/Food Politics