CHN: FY 2015 Agriculture Appropriations Bills Move in House and Senate
FY 2015 Agriculture Department funding bills saw action in both chambers last week, complete with controversy over Congressional attempts to override guidelines set by nutrition experts for school lunches and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program. Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees in both the House and Senate approved their bills on May 20, with the full Senate Appropriations Committee approving its bill by a 30-0 vote on May 22.
The issue surrounding the WIC program centered on what program participants are allowed to purchase with their WIC vouchers. Based on recommendations from experts at the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine (IOM), recipients are currently allowed to use their vouchers to purchase certain foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables other than white potatoes (the IOM concluded that the women and children served by WIC get enough starchy vegetables in their diets without needing a voucher for white potatoes). However, when the Senate Appropriations Committee took up their bill last Thursday, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and Chairman Mark Pryor (D-AR) offered an amendment to include white potatoes in the WIC food package, second-guessing the judgment of scientific experts. The amendment passed, though in a nod to compromise, it allows the USDA to cut potatoes from the package in the future if a mandatory study deems they shouldn’t be included. The House version of the bill also includes language incorporating white potatoes as an acceptable part of the package.
The school lunch controversy centers around the nutrition standards set by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Despite the fact that over 90% of schools have already successfully implemented the standards, the House version of the bill requires the USDA to let schools waive out of the nutrition requirements if the school’s program has been losing money over a six-month period. The USDA released a statement from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack calling the bill “a major step backwards for the health of American children.” However, in what was seen by many as a partial compromise, the USDA also issued a press release shortly after the House subcommittee passed its bill announcing it would allow schools an additional two years to meet the requirement that 100% of pastas in schools be high in whole grains. The agency asserted that this move followed complaints from schools that many of the whole grain pasta products currently available don’t hold up when prepared in large quantities in school cafeterias. On the Senate side, reports that Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) planned to offer amendments that would freeze or delay the whole grain requirements as well as an upcoming reduction in sodium levels didn’t come to fruition, mainly because of a compromise amendment offered by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA). Harkin’s amendment would keep in place the sodium reductions required for the upcoming school year but would require further study that may delay additional sodium reduction requirements set to take place in 2017. It would also require the USDA to report to Congress on alternatives if the availability of whole grain-rich products is limited. It does not, however, provide waivers for schools or delay any other nutritional requirements set to go into effect this fall.
For many advocacy groups, these two controversies signal a dangerous shift in policy and precedent, one in which Congress bypasses recommendations from scientists, nutritionists, and health experts and instead puts special interests and profits ahead of making sure kids get a healthy start in life. In the 40-year history of WIC, this is the first time Congress has intervened in decisions on the food package. However, if this inclusion is ultimately approved by Congress, many advocates worry that other food industries will lobby for their products’ inclusion in the package in the future. And at a time when childhood obesity continues to be a major health problem in our country, many advocates feel the nutrition standards for WIC and the school lunch program – both of which have a large impact on the health of our children – shouldn’t be left up to political games.
Both bills include roughly $6.6 billion for the WIC program which, according to the Senate Appropriations Committee, will fully fund benefits for the more than 8 million women expected to participate. Funds in the bills also support the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which provides nutritious monthly food packages to low-income seniors, the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), competitive grants for schools to purchase equipment to help in the preparation of healthier meals, and other programs.
The House bill is expected to be before the full House Appropriations Committee this Thursday. The Senate plan is to move its spending bills to the floor in late June or early July, with the goal of having all 12 spending bills approved by July 10.