House panel votes to allow school districts to temporarily opt out of dietary rules

Despite White House pressure, the House Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to allow school districts to temporarily  opt out of school dietary requirements championed by first lady Michelle Obama.

The party-line vote was hailed by an organization of school nutritionists and Republicans, but criticized by Democrats and health advocacy groups.

After more than 90 minutes of sharply partisan debate, the spending panel voted 29 to 22 to reject an amendment from Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) to kill the  GOP language, which would allow the  Department of Agriculture to grant waivers to any school district that could show that their lunch programs operated at a net loss over six months.

Some school officials say the losses are tied to the imposition of stiff new rules requiring whole wheat products and fruits and vegetables as part of the school lunch program. Others heralded the new dietary standards for reducing obesity and changing the eating habits of young people for the better. Republicans, led by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), rejected claims that the waivers would  gut the nutrition standards. Rather, he said they are necessary to give schools time to implement cumbersome changes.

Aderholt said he is open to modifying the language in the agriculture spending bill to make it clear that the waiver is only temporary. The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved a companion spending bill that does not permit waivers. It authorizes  delays in some food rules and the study of others. 

The White House has pushed hard against the waivers, saying they would roll back gains in child nutrition. On Tuesday,  Michelle Obama hosted a discussion with nutritionists calling for a fight against the legislation, and she authored an op-ed piece opposing the waivers proposal in the New York Times.

The most powerful lobby on this topic, the School Nutrition Association, applauded the lawmakers' decision.   "We appreciate the House Appropriations Committee’s support for this waiver to give temporary needed relief to some schools across the country,” said SNA President Leah Schmidt.  “This will not halt the progress in school cafeterias;  it is a temporary reprieve to allow schools to catch up."

She also called on the  Agriculture Department  to  provide additional flexibility in implementing the law.

 If USDA refuses to act, Schmidt said she hoped "Congress will stand up to protect America’s school meal programs from unintended negative consequences that could derail future successes in cafeterias nationwide.”

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