Funding Bill Hurts Child Nutrition

Federal Budget

Last week, Congress passed an omnibus appropriations bill to fund most of the government through September 2015. The bill includes a number of policy riders that negatively impact child nutrition. These policy riders alter nutrition standards for school meals that are based on nutrition science to decrease childhood obesity and improve child health, and change the Special Supplemental Nutrition Improvement Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) food package to include white potatoes without sufficient data that pregnant women and young children lack starchy vegetables in their diets.

National school lunch and school breakfast nutrition standards on whole grains and sodium content were weakened in the funding deal. Schools that show financial hardship in serving 100 percent whole grain food, the requirement set by the 2010 Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act, can apply for a wavier to those requirements. Reductions in the amount of sodium in school meals were also frozen at current levels. The Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 established three stages of sodium reductions for schools meals. For high school students, these stages are: up to 1420 milligrams of sodium in the 2014-2015 school year, 1080 milligrams for the 2017-18 school year, and 740 in the 2022-23 school year. Changes in the omnibus bill passed last week freeze reductions at their current level “until the latest scientific research establishes the reductions are beneficial for children.” This is an odd statement to include in the omnibus since the maximum daily recommended intake of sodium for those over age 14 is 2,300 milligrams a day, which is based on the most recent nutrition science, and the nutrition standards, which were established by the Institute of Medicine, are based on the daily recommended intake.

While these provisions do not weaken the nutrition standards as significantly as many proposals that were ultimately not included in the bill, they still weaken standards intended to improve children’s nutrition. Health professionals and child nutrition experts should be making decisions about what constitutes nutritious school meals, not Congress. If schools and school districts are suffering financial hardship to meet the new standards, Congress should use their power of appropriation to ensure that schools have the resources necessary to meet these important standards rather than watering down standards that promote child health.

The omnibus also requires that the WIC food package include white potatoes. WIC is intended as a supplemental food package for women and their young children. As such, the food package is based on USDA studies of what nutrients women and their young children are missing from their diets. USDA is currently studying whether or not women and children need access to more starchy vegetables. Similar to making school nutrition standards, this is a decision that should be left to nutrition experts and scientists, not Congress. At best, Congress is acting pre-emptively, before we have results from the USDA review on starchy vegetables. At worst, Congress is altering a food package that should be based on science to the benefit of special interests.

Must-pass pieces of legislation like the omnibus often contain a number of controversial policy riders, and the legislation passed last week is no different. Unfortunately, child health and nutrition will be negatively affected as a result of the policy riders described above.