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Republicans introduce bill to repeal school lunch changes

In a sign that new school meals are becoming part of the political campaigns this fall, Reps. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., and Steve King, R-Iowa, introduced a bill Friday to repeal the Agriculture Department rule that sets new standards and caloric limits on school lunch, while Agriculture Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon and Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan defended the rule.

The bill was introduced the same day that USDA announced grants to 18 states and one territory for programs to train school officials and lunch room workers how to implement the new standards in ways that children will accept. See following story.

Under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service requires school make more nutritious meals this fall by limiting salt and sugar and using leaner meats, lower calorie dairy products and more fruits and vegetables. The new standards also provide guidance on the calorie level of the meals for each age group.

Thirty-two million children eat meals provided at school. Obama administration officials and nutritionists have praised the new rules as a major advance in the fight against childhood obesity.

Huelskamp said in a news release last week that on a tour of his state in August parents told him that “school meals are leaving their children hungry” and that “Kansas schools are being forced to serve children fewer calories of less tasteful food.”

“Big government wins again,” Huelskamp said in the news release.

“First Lady Michelle Obama’s agenda full of ‘exciting changes’ — her words, not mine — are leaving our kids hungry, undermining the whole goal of a school lunch program,” he continued.

“For the first time in history, the USDA has set a calorie limit on school lunches," King said on Friday.

“The goal of the school lunch program was — and is — to insure students receive enough nutrition to be healthy and to learn. The misguided nanny state, as advanced by Michelle Obama’s ‘Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act,’ was interpreted by Secretary Vilsack to be a directive that, because some kids are overweight, he would put every child on a diet. Parents know that their kids deserve all of the healthy and nutritious food they want.”

“The goal of the school lunch program is supposed to be feeding children, not filling the trash cans with uneaten food," Huelskamp said. “The USDA’s new school lunch guidelines are a perfect example of what is wrong with government: misguided inputs, tremendous waste, and unaccomplished goals. Thanks to the Nutrition Nannies at the USDA, America’s children are going hungry at school.”

“If Washington is going to be in the school lunch business, then it should at least ensure that children have full stomachs. Parents who purchase school lunches for their children or taxpayers who support free- and reduced- lunch programs have the expectation that what kids eat are meals — not mere snacks,” Huelskamp said.

“And, if we want to make sure our children are active, then they need a meal complete with ample protein — not just more grains,” he added. “The first lady has recognized that ‘talented people’ work in our school cafeterias; I agree. Let’s let the talented people in each school district figure out what their own children will eat — not dictate it from the White House.”

Concannon noted in an email to The Hagstrom Report that that the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act had been passed by a bipartisan majority to address a real problem.

“One in three children in America are overweight or obese and at risk for diabetes, and school meals play a critical role in reinforcing what kids are learning about nutrition and healthy foods in the classroom and at home,” Concannon said.

“Given that the previous school meal standards were developed 15 years ago and did not meet current nutritional guidelines, independent doctors, health and nutrition experts, and many moms and dads, supported the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was passed by a strong bi-partisan majority in Congress,” he said.

“As a result of this law, USDA proposed updated, science-based nutrition standards — developed with guidance from the Institute of Medicine — which provide significant flexibility for local schools to develop their own menus to ensure that children have the energy they need to learn and be physically active, while reducing their risk for obesity and other serious diseases. We will continue to work with schools as they implement these new standards to ensure that every child, in every community across America, has access to healthy and nutritious meals.”

Merrigan said in a conference call Friday with reporters that “It would be very, very sad if this becomes partisan” because the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed on a bipartisan basis and there has been widespread recognition that the problem of childhood obesity needs to be addressed.

On the issue of calories, Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Janey Thornton said the portion sizes are intentionally in line with the portions recommended by the dietary guidelines and the Institute of Medicine.

“We do not have triple burgers or huge portions that we as a society have come to think as the norm,” Thornton said. “We are trying to teach portion sizes.”

Obesity is “related as much to amounts we eat as what we are eating,” she noted.

Student athletes, she said, can get more food through afterschool snack programs.

“The football team needs more calories, but we don’t have all linebackers in the school,” said Thornton, a former school lunch official in Kentucky.