Congress Debates Funding its Own School Lunch Standards

Posted By: FiscalNote

Do kids really eat their vegetables? Should French fries count as vegetables?

These are among the questions debated in Washington as politicians divide over whether to roll back recently imposed standards for school lunches.

In 2010, Congress handily passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set standards for more whole grains, proteins, and healthy options to be sold in schools for lunches and snacks. The law was passed to cut down on rising childhood obesity rates and their resulting health effects. Since 2010, some in Congress have argued that the law is too burdensome for schools, and that the kids do not eat the healthier options, throwing them away in favor of less healthy snacks. Then there are the debates over whether white potatoes and foods containing small amounts of tomato paste should count under the standards for school lunch vegetables.

Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee reached a number of compromises and moved forward their bill to fund the Department of Agriculture, which continues the standards for school lunches. However, the House Appropriations Committee’s bill calls for a temporary freeze of the rules and a waiver process to allow schools to opt out of the nutrition requirements. The committees will eventually have to reconcile these two very different bills if an appropriations bill is to pass Congress.

Meanwhile, 665 bills have been proposed across the states containing the phrase “school lunch.” Most of these bills have failed to pass before the end of their states’ legislative sessions. The few that have had success would not strengthen nutritional requirements. California AB422, which passed in October, has little to do with actual school lunch requirements, instead requiring notification of reduced-cost health care coverage for those eligible for free or reduced-cost school lunches. A bill passed in Arkansas expands the purposes for which school districts may use national school lunch funding.

Louisiana legislators passed legislation that “requests the United States Department of Agriculture to develop tastier food options for the National School Lunch Program.” This bill asks the USDA to have children submit taste-testing feedback and asserts that “student participation will grow as students develop a taste for fruits and vegetables.”

If pizza and French fries were counted as vegetables, students might acquire that taste for vegetables more quickly.