POLITICS
09/04/2015 07:01 am ET Updated Sep 04, 2015

Tom Vilsack Eats Whole Grain Pasta, Wants Your Children To Eat It

Congress needs to re-up the National School Lunch Program but doesn't want to eat its veggies.
ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- Congress has until the end of the month to reauthorize the law that gives 30 million free or low-cost lunches to American schoolchildren every day. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined The Huffington Post's "So That Happened" podcast as part of a broader effort to publicize the deadline.

Republicans on Capitol Hill are working on a reauthorization, which they plan to reveal this month, though Vilsack worries lawmakers might mess with some of the new nutrition standards Congress added when it last reauthorized child nutrition programs in 2010.

"Some Republican members of Congress have expressed concerns about the [nutrition] standards," Vilsack said. "But I think they are doing so based on the belief that a majority of parents, a majority of students, a majority of school administrators are not supportive of these standards, when in fact that's not the case."

Vilsack has repeatedly touted a host of surveys that suggest overwhelming support for the new rules among students, parents and school administrators. First Lady Michelle Obama strongly championed the higher standards, which were mandated by the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act -- such a high priority that Democrats supported food stamp cuts to pay for the law.

One of the new rules calls for all grain items in school meals to be whole-grain-rich, since whole grains are much healthier than refined ones. HuffPost asked Vilsack if he himself eats whole grain pasta, pizza and quesadillas.

"I do, but the point of this is, we were aware of concerns specifically about pasta and we provided flexibility to allow the food processing industry more time," he said, referring to a 2014 memo that allowed school pasta to be less than 100 percent whole grain. Noodles that met the standard tended to "degrade easily," according to the memo.

The School Nutrition Association is a member organization for cafeteria professionals that has been lobbying for more flexibility from the standards as well as higher meal reimbursement rates from the federal government. The organization has pointed to surveys of its own suggesting the higher nutrition standards have imposed costs that burden some schools. And spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner said some students are hostile to things like whole grain bagels, biscuits and tortillas.

"It's a challenge when students are not encountering those at home or in restaurants," Pratt-Heavner said.

"Despite our best efforts to make meals more appealing, we are struggling with student acceptance of new options, particularly whole grain items," Cindy Jones, a school nutrition business manager in Olathe, Kansas, testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee in May. "Many schools in Kansas have been challenged to find whole grain rich tortillas, pizza crust, biscuits, pasta, crackers and other specialty items that appeal to our students."

Vilsack said that both students and the food industry are coming around, however. He pointed to a June study showing increased fruit consumption and reduced plate waste under the new rules. 

"We also know there are a number of products that are whole grains that essentially have been embraced by students at schools, from tortillas, to burritos, to a variety of other pasta products that are being improved and are getting in a better place," he said.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which oversees child nutrition, has been working on a bill with Sen. Debbie Stabenhow (D-Mich.), the committee's top Democrat, his office said. Roberts has also been meeting and eating with nutrition directors and students in Kansas.

“One word keeps coming up – flexibility," Roberts said in an emailed statement. "To me, flexibility means that we need protect the impressive improvements already reached by many school districts and provide support to other school districts to reach the same level of success.”

Though Congress is up against a deadline, there is no school lunch cliff: the National School Lunch Program will keep serving meals even if the law expires, Vilsack said. It's one of several child nutrition programs that will continue on autopilot absent a reauthorization. Others, however -- including a $6 billion program that serves pregnant women and nursing mothers -- could be in trouble without a reauthorization or at least an appropriation.

Either way, Vilsack said he wants Congress to act now, not later.

"It will be helpful to have this work done now by an administration that understands and appreciates the significance of these nutrition programs relative to economic security, health care costs, and national security as well as educational achievement," he said. 

This podcast was produced and edited by Adriana Usero and Peter James Callahan, engineered by Brad Shannon, with assistance from Christine Conetta.

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