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Debate Over School Lunch Nutrition Standards Delays Agriculture Spending Bill

Nutrition standards for school lunches have turned into one of the most contentious issues in this year’s appropriations debate.

The lunch standards helped prompt House leaders to abruptly pull the Agriculture spending bill from the House floor last month, and they are shaping up as a potentially big vote in the Senate too.

Republicans in the House and Senate want to use the fiscal 2015 Agriculture spending bill to delay — or allow waivers from — rules aimed at putting more fruits, vegetables and whole grains on school menus and reducing sodium, sugar and fat.

Upping the ante, first lady Michelle Obama has thrown herself into the congressional battle over nutrition standards, as lawmakers grapple with child obesity issues and the food industry worries that new rules could eat into profits.

“We’re now seeing efforts in Congress to roll back these new standards and the hard work that all of you, all of us, have done on behalf of our kids,” the first lady told a school meal nutrition roundtable at the White House late last month. “This is unacceptable.”

Easily overlooked in the debate over whether the nutrition rules are necessary for public health, or are unwarranted government intrusions in local matters, is that school meals are also very much about money.

The K-12 food service industry generates $18 billion to $20 billion a year in business, with federal meal reimbursements accounting for about 60 percent of the money, according to a June report by the trade publication Food Management. That’s an educated guess, because the food service umbrella covers colleges and universities, restaurants and institutions. Even publicly traded companies provide few details.

Companies ranging from distribution giant Sysco Corp., to the leading chicken and pork processor Tyson Foods, to cereal- and food-maker General Mills Inc. have a stake in this niche food service industry. Regional and smaller companies are also players in the field.

With the stakes so high for the industry and the White House, particularly with the first lady’s personal involvement, the fight is only intensifying. The Obama administration issued a veto threat against the House bill just before floor debate started on June 11. Republican leaders took the measure off the floor the next day, before Democrats got a vote on an amendment to remove the bill’s one-year grace period from upcoming nutrition standards for school cafeteria directors who can show a six-month operating loss. The bill might come up again later this summer.

On the Senate side, Republican John Hoeven of North Dakota filed an amendment last month to a planned “minibus” spending bill — which included the Agriculture title — that would have given schools waivers from the whole-grain foods rules if the rules would cause hardship. Unlike the House bill, his amendment would not have required proof of operating losses. The bill, however, was pulled from the floor amid disagreements over amendment votes.

Thin Margins

For parts of the food industry, a delay — or broad waivers — would make a huge difference to their bottom lines.

Patty Johnson, a global food and beverage analyst for Mintel Group in Chicago, says tougher nutrition rules at both the state and federal levels would mean fewer snack sales for a la carte lines and greater reliance on food for federally subsidized meals.

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