WASHINGTON – A House committee grilled the secretary of agriculture Tuesday about how to balance choice, cost and nourishment in federal children’s nutrition programs.
Nine children’s nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program, are set to expire in September unless they are reauthorized by Congress. Members of the Committee on Education and the Workforce questioned Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about ways to improve the programs.
“We are dealing with twin issues here. We are dealing with 17 million youngsters who are food insecure. At the same time we are dealing with nearly a third of our youngsters who are obese or at risk of being obese,” Vilsack said.
The term food insecure refers to children who may not always have food available at home.
The main program in question was the National School Lunch Program. In 2014, according to the Federal Education Budget Project, 31 million students received 5 billion meals through the program. Of those meals, 61 percent were free and 8 percent were sold at a reduced price.
“They were saying that if they just had flexibility on whole grains. The whole-grain pasta just sticks together and becomes gooey, they said,” Guthrie said. “One parent suggested that they have one flex day that doesn’t count.”
He said his constituents don’t want sodium limits reduced further. He tried the low-salt mashed potatoes at a school in his district and said they were bland.
Vilsack said that, because dietary guidelines cover a week, schools could adjust menus to have a flex day for less-nutritious food.
However, some like Rep. David Roe, R-Tenn., were not convinced.
“About what Mr. Guthrie said, basically the food police deciding how many pickles you get on a hamburger is ridiculous,” Roe said.
In contrast, many representatives also expressed concern about the obesity rate and health-care costs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the annual cost of health care related to obesity is estimated to be $147 billion.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., asked Vilsack a series of questions about exactly what diseases obesity contributed to and whether it should be considered an “epidemic.”
Roe asked if people using food stamps, formally called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, should be barred from buying certain foods. He said the country spent between $2 billion and $4 billion last year on soda, and soda “is not food.”
The Women, Infants and Children program, which assists poor women who are pregnant or have children up to 5 years old, limits what can be bought to healthful food.
Vilsack said that families on SNAP are purchasing food “that is not much different” from the average consumer. Roe responded that the situation was different because “they are buying it with taxpayers’ dollars.”
The issue of taxpayers’ dollars was also on the mind of committee Chairman Rep. John Kline, R-Minn.
“Washington is responsible for deciding what and how much our children eat,” Kline said. “These regulations have created an environment where students are not getting the nourishment they need, and food and taxpayer dollars wind up in the trashcan.”
Reach reporter Sarah Fulton at [email protected] or 202-408-1492. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
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