Chairman Miller began the hearing with an opening statement. He spoke of the paradox of the duel problems of hunger and obesity. He mentioned the clear connection between healthy food and the ability for children to focus and learn so they can grow into healthy, successful adults. He noted that school lunch should not just feed kids healthier meals but should also serve as a form of education to help kids develop healthy habits that last a lifetime. And he noted that the U.S. has used the schools as a vehicle to advance public health in the past with campaigns for seatbelts and against smoking.
School lunch is a chance to "dramatically drive down" future health care costs, he said. Then he brought up school gardens and their usefulness for teaching various subjects like biology, zoology, and art as well as providing the kids with fresh food and educating them and their parents about where food comes from. He called for more school gardens across the country, and said we should accept nothing but the best quality food in cafeterias.
All in all, I support every single word he said. The problem is that his bill needs more money if it's going to get us to the goals he outlined. The bill will get us much of the way there, but sadly, it would take tens of billions of dollars to really do the job right. That kind of money is thrown around as if it were pennies when it comes to illegal wars of choice like Iraq, but it never seems to be available when we're talking about the health and well-being of our kids.
In his statement Miller outlined four goals of his bill. First, streamlining and increasing access to food for children in low income families. Second, improving the safety of school food and making sure recalled food is removed from cafeterias. Third, increasing the reimbursement rate for the first time in 30 years. Last, making sure that hungry kids get food when school is out - during weekends, vacations, and summer - because hunger doesn't take a vacation.
As he pointed out this bill is supported by a broad coalition of teachers, parents, health organizations, the anti-hunger lobby, and Michelle Obama. He ended by saying: "The nation's greatest treasure is at risk." The hearing today was intended to show "what is really at stake and why this bill is so critical."
Next up was the Ranking Member, John Kline (R-MN). He was also supportive of the goals of the bill but said, "What has given us pause, however, is the almost $8 billion price tag attached to this bill." In other words, you can count on him and the Republicans to try to drive down the amount spent in this bill.
Panel 1: Testimony
Next, Vilsack testified. He was the only witness on the first "panel." He said that school lunches have to much fat, sugar, and sodium, and not enough fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low fat dairy. Notice how he said kids should eat less of a list of nutrients but they need to eat more of specific foods? That's classic USDA. He then said that he's thrilled the bill will allow the USDA to regulate competitive foods (a la carte items and food sold in vending machines). Of course instead of using the dreaded "R" word ("Regulate") he repeatedly spoke about "consistency" between the school lunch program and competitive foods. He didn't overtly say it but in the past the USDA has had very limited access to regulate competitive foods and this bill is about to change that.
Vilsack made a few more points I found important. He is eager to improve equipment and training for cafeterias as well as the safety of school lunch food. And he wants to "reconnect youngsters with food supply so there's a better understanding of what farmers and ranchers contribute to us every day." He noted four reasons why this bill is so important (in fact, he said it was his #1 priority):
1. The research is clear that hungry & unhealthy kids have a hard time learning.
2. Health care costs: Kids with health problems related to diet carry that into adulthood with rising costs associated with heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.
3. National security: A substantial percentage of military age young adults are currently too overweight to serve.
4. It's a moral issue. The richest country shouldn't have hungry kids. A country is only as strong as its youth.
He ended with a call to the committee to pass this bill quickly. He noted that many important issues that Congress tackles are difficult and confusing, but this is one issue that every single Mom and Dad in America understands clearly.
The first exchange was one between Miller and Vilsack and, despite my familiarity with this issue, the entire exchange made no sense at all to me. I can try to follow up and then update this diary if I get the information on what was meant by the question and answer.
Miller then asked about farm to school programs and what the USDA was doing. Vilsack didn't miss a beat. He brought up the USDA's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program and its 15 tactical teams that are working with 15 school districts to help them work out the details of sourcing local foods. Some of the problems are educational - helping schools learn what is available in their area and when - but some is related to infrastructure. Often you need to have warehouses, slaughterhouses, cold storage, etc, to make the program work. Here the USDA is using its rural development money to make that happen.
Next came Ranking Member Kline. He's hearing from the Minnesota farm bureau that they don't want the additional school lunch money to come out of the USDA's conservation budget (which is what the Senate bill does).
Vilsack said that while he wants to preserve his conservation budget as much as he can,
the bottom line is that there's nothing more important than doing child nutrition this year so if we need to find room in the USDA budget to pay for it we will...
The IOM study was a wake up call for me... suggesting that we are NOT doing right by our kids.
He and Kline continued their exchange. Kline wants to nail down where the money is coming from before the bill leaves the committee. Vilsack does NOT want to do that because he's afraid he'll offer up money and then it will be taken away from him to pay for something else. He told Kline to pass the bill and then he'd find a way to pay for it.
Joe Courtney of Connecticut was next. I had the pleasure of visiting several dairy farms in his district last year and it seems that he's got those dairy farms in mind when he thinks about school lunch. He wanted to talk about kids drinking more soda and less milk today than they did 20 years ago. Also, as a member of the armed services committee, he's very concerned that young people are too fat to serve.
Vilsack replied that it's "important to distinguish between every day foods and sometimes foods." Milk is an every day food, he said. The USDA is asking for ability to regulate competitive foods to keep the "sometimes" foods out of the lunch line. If families want soda for kids as treat, no problem, said Vilsack, but on a day to day regular basis, kids need to get adequate supplies of wholesome food.
Courtney brought up farm to school, saying that dairy is a way to do that. He's got a bill called the Healthy Milk & Dairy Choices Act.
Castle (R-DE) came next. He went to a school with supposedly good nutrition standards in their lunch program and saw kids buying a la carte junk in the lunch line. He didn't seem to know that the USDA was actually forbidden from regulating that under current law, so he asked Vilsack what, if anything, the USDA was doing about junk sold in schools.
Vilsack replied, repeating that he wants the ability to regulate competitive foods, but also noted the importance of equipment grants for schools as well as education for kids and parents and training for lunch staff. If you want to serve healthy food but you've got fryers instead of equipment to steam vegetables, that's a challenge that increasing nutrition standards can't fix.
Castle repeated his question, asking who has oversight over nutrition in schools. Vilsack replied that USDA's Food and Nutrition Service has that job but with 100,000 school districts, it's difficult. Here's a great line by Vilsack:
Candidly, I think food, for many [schools], was a revenue source, and we need to change that mind set
Next up came David Loebsack (D-IA). He mentioned growing up poor and noted that he was the one who put direct certification into the child nutrition bill. He spoke about the concern about paying for this bill and said that it was born out of short term thinking of politicians, but we need to think long term. He said, "This is an investment we can make in the short term so we can actually save, I think, in the long term" by preventing the devlepment of chronic disease.
Then he mentioned CSAs and asked how ag could play a role in helping the school lunch program.
Vilsack said that when you look at small scale producers, we need sufficient numbers of farmers so that schools have consistency and predictability of their supply. It's about setting up a system and infrastructure "which we are eager to do" he said. At the end of his answer, he threw in another plug for school gardens. Yay!
Next up was Judy Biggert (R-IL). She asked how many schools would be required to change their menus to comply with new standards. All of them, said Vilsack. Then he reiterated how important making these changes are, and talked about how difficult it is to focus on learning when you're getting made fun of for being fat. He said when he was in fourth grade, his teacher actually told him he was too fat to do a math problem.
Biggert than said she worried that the government was too heavy handed with its regulation and she wants there to be local control over the foods chosen so that they are consistent to local tastes and cultural preferences. Vilsack said that there will be enough room for schools to serve appropriate foods.
Next came Kucinich, who was nothing short of brilliant (even for Kucinich!). He asked to include four scholarly articles in the record. All four were on the link between advertising and health and obesity. Therefore, why do we let companies use advertising junk to kids as a tax write-off? He has a bill, HR 4310, that will reclaim those tax dollars and use the money to pay for better food for kids. He asked Vilsack's opinion on that.
This is where Vilsack disappointed me by acting like a typical, slimy, pro-corporate, do-nothing politician. He said that the USDA's focus has been on an "education component" You know, let companies prey on children too young to even understand the persuasive intent of advertising and then take the tax write-off for doing it. Meanwhile, we'll run some PSAs telling kids to eat healthy food. Despite Vilsack's disappointing response, this is an idea I am going to run. We need to get some popular support for this idea - and OUTRAGE if it is not adopted.
Next was Brett Guthrie (R-KY). He said he doesn't want to tell parents how to raise their kids (referring to educating kids and parents on nutrition) but he's all for limiting food stamps so that recipients can only use them for healthy food.
Vilsack replied that first, it's technologically impossible but second, there's no guarantee it would work. A family could easily buy their healthy stuff with food stamps and then use their additional food budget to pay for junk. (I would add, although Vilsack didn't say it, that this would be incredibly paternalistic of government to do.) Vilsack said that instead they are trying to set up incentive programs so that if, for example, a food stamp recipient bought a cauliflower that costs $1, the food stamp program would give $1 to the retailer but deduct only $.70 from the person's food stamp benefits.
Next was Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY). She noted that she's a nurse and worried about pediatricians reporting kids with the arteries of 45 year olds. She said we WILL find the money for this bill and then mentioned several of her own bills:
HR 3625: The Food Marketing in Schools Assessment Act
HR 3626: The Exemplary Breastfeeding Support Act
HR 5430: The Partnerships for Wellness Act
HR 5431: The Start Healthy Habits Early Act
Her question was about a claim she'd heard (and clearly didn't believe) that there is "little or no evidence that government spending on nutrition programs can be effective at reducing overweight or obesity." She asked Vilsack's opinion. He basically said "that's crazy." Kids eat a significant percent of their calories at school so there's no way that doesn't impact their overall healthy. He called that "common sense."
Next came GT Thompson (R-PA) who sits on the Ag committee too and clearly loves industrial agriculture. I missed a lot of his Q&A but it seems he's worried that school lunch might take money away from other parts of the USDA budget for ag. He asked if we've assessed stimulus spending on school lunch to find out how effective it is. It sounds like he wants hard proof that spending money on kids food works or else he doesn't want to spend it.
Vilsack replied that the amount spent on equipment grants in the stimulus was a drop in the bucket compared to their needs. It sounded like he meant that the problem is so immense that it's not likely that the pittance allotted to schools in the stimulus would have a huge effect if it were measured.
Next came Dina Titus (D-NV). She's concerned about kids access to food when school is out and brought up her bill, the Weekends Without Hunger Act (HR 5012), which establishes a five year pilot program to provide kids with backpacks full of USDA commodities on the weekends. Vilsack liked that idea.
Here's where, if I were Keith Olbermann, I'd announce the Worst Person in the World. The following is NOT what was actually said during this exchange. But it might as well have been:
Bill Cassidy: The more we spend, the fatter people get. So does that mean we shouldn't keep spending money on this?
Vilsack: You are an idiot.
Cassidy: So would we do better if we made Big Government get out of the way by deregulating nutrition standards? And how can someone be hungry and fat at the same time? I don't get it.
Vilsack: You are REALLY an idiot.
Judy Chu asked the last questions. She is worried about how a change in the amount spent on school lunch will affect the price paid by kids who don't get free or reduced cost lunch. Will their families be able to afford a more expensive lunch, for example. Vilsack replied that it's a good point and there are people who are on the bubble (i.e. making just enough not to qualify for free or reduced lunch) so we need to be careful about any changes we make there.
Chu ended by asking what schools are charging for lunch and why are there differences? Vilsack said he'd give her a written response. And that wrapped up the first half of the hearing.