WASHINGTON — A House committee moved forward with a measure Thursday to scale back school lunch standards, despite high-profile opposition from first lady Michelle Obama.
By a party-line vote of 29-22, members of the House Appropriations Committee voted to retain a provision that would allow some school districts to opt out of federal requirements to reduce sodium and to increase fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The vote came as the committee debated a bill funding the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the federal school lunch program.
The Republican-backed measure requires the federal government to grant waivers to any school lunch program that has operated at a net loss over a six-month period.
The lunch standards, passed by Congress in 2010, have been championed by Obama as part of her initiative to promote healthy eating and exercise. This week, the first lady made a rare foray into public policy — denouncing Republican attempts to roll back the lunch standards in a New York Times editorial and during a gathering of school nutrition experts.
Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said appropriators had decided to replace "the judgment of doctors and nutritionists with the opinions of politicians regarding what is healthy for our kids."
Opponents of the new dietary standards say they are too complicated and have led to waste as students throw away the fruits and vegetables schools now are required to serve.
"The schools are finding the regulations to be too much, too quick," said Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., the top Republican advocate of the opt-out provision. "The heavy hand of the government is coming down and trying to dictate to school systems."
Several Democrats argued the new standards are needed to combat the nation's rising childhood obesity problem and to prevent diabetes, cancer and other diseases. California Rep. Sam Farr, the top Democrat on the panel that oversees agriculture spending, said it was short-sighted for Congress to ease the standards because some school-lunch officials were having difficulty with the new standards.
"We don't tell kids you don't have to take math if it's hard," Farr said. He sought unsuccessfully to remove the provision during Thursday's debate.
Proponent of the lunch standards note that the School Nutrition Association — which has led the lobbying fight in Congress to scale back the standards — counts some of the nation's large food producers among its financial benefactors.
Nearly 90 corporations — ranging from Domino's Pizza to Sara Lee Foodservice — each pay $10,500 annually to serve as patron-level members of the association, according to the group's website.
The food processing industry has a big presence in Washington, spending $39.8 million to lobby Congress and regulators last year, according to data compiled by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.
"A lot of the power and influence of the School Nutrition Association comes not from the 'lunch ladies' but the big companies that pay a lot of money to belong to the SNA," said Margo Wootan, director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Wootan supports the stricter standards and said schools could do more to encourage kids to eat healthful foods — such as providing apple slices rather than whole apples that might be harder for students with braces to eat.
Association spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner said corporations represent a tiny number — 522 — of the group's 55,000 membership. The push is not about food-industry lobbying, she said, but "about school cafeteria professionals seeing a high-volume of waste" as they struggle with tight budgets.
"We should encourage kids to make healthy choices," Pratt-Heavner added, "not force them to take items they don't intend to eat."
Congress already has eased some of the new nutrition requirement after industry lobbying. In 2011, lawmakers changed the rules to allow the tomato sauce in pizza to count as a vegetable. As a result, a slice of pizza meets the law's requirements for a nutritious meal that qualifies for federal reimbursement.