Explainer / Food Policy

The Food Fight Ahead

food fight

Every five years, farmers and politicians get together for two knock-down, drag-out rumbles: the Farm Bill and Child Nutrition Reauthorization.

The former is thankfully in our rear-view mirrors. The hard fought Farm Bill debate came to a merciful end in early 2014, with cuts to food stamps and an expansion in crop insurance as the biggest changes.

But now advocates across the country are warming up for the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) fight. CNR is policy wonks’ name for the omnibus, or combined, bill that authorizes all of the federal child nutrition programs. They’re the big ones everybody’s heard of—National School Lunch, School Breakfast, Summer Food Service—as well as some that get less air time—the Child and Adult Care Food Program and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children).

Whether you know these programs or not, you will likely remember the very public brawl that ensued following the last CNR, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010. Child advocates and long-suffering nutritionists joined First Lady Michelle Obama in celebrating the rainbow of fruits and veggies now required in school lunches. Meanwhile, those behind the lunch counter were offended by the paltry 6-cent-per-meal increase in federal reimbursements for the costs and labor associated with meeting the standards. Laissez-faire mamas screamed “nanny state” and the likes of the so-called potato lobby agreed, loudly and to great effect. In the 2014 budget deal, some parts of HHFKA were weakened, and members of the new Republican-controlled Congress have vowed to continue rolling back the law.

The good news for those advocates and legislators with a bone to pick? This is the year for action. HHFKA is scheduled to expire this September, so right about now is when you’ll hear the lobbying machines start their engines.

On the side of the HHFKA detractors, the School Nutrition Association, which represents 55,000 people who coordinate, purchase, and serve school meals (and which is often criticized for getting too cozy with school food manufacturers), put out its 2015 Position Paper outlining the group’s priorities for the upcoming year. They don’t mind the HHFKA’s overall calorie caps on school meals, and they’re happy to offer kids more fruits and vegetables, but they’re far less jazzed about what they say are overly burdensome sodium restrictions, whole grain requirements, and, of course, the mandate that students actually take the fruits and vegetables for the school to receive federal reimbursement for their meals. Oh, and they’d like more than 6 cents per meal to comply, thank you very much.

Among the healthy food defenders, the big news debuted Thursday morning. U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Representatives Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Marcia Fudge (D-OH) introduced identical bills in the Senate and House calling for an increase in the USDA Farm to School Grant Program, from $5 million to $15 million. Among their arguments for the bill are the proven benefits of local food purchases to local economies, the possibility that farm to school programs increase the share of each food dollar that local farmers get to keep (in the 1980s it was more than 30 cents and is now closer to 16 cents), and the unmet demand for Farm to School Grants—just 20 percent of the applications to the program were granted in its first three years due to limited funding. Plus, if farm to school funding could help schools get kids to touch, taste, learn about, and even grow their own fresh fruits and vegetables, the cafeterias might be able to convince more students to eat those things, too—reducing the food waste that HHFKA opponents say has become such a problem.

At this point, the SNA Position Paper is just that—a starting stance. And analysts are quick to point out that the much tweeted Farm to School Act of 2015 is only a “marker bill.” A marker bill is introduced while discussion of an omnibus bill (like CNR) is just getting started in order to generate issue-specific buzz and debate among lawmakers, but never to come to the floor for a vote. The thinking is that if enough voters and organizations vocalize their support for the Farm to School Act of 2015, the farm to school provisions in CNR bill to come may just stand a chance.

For now, it’s all posturing and trash talk. School Food wants this. Farmers demand that. Anti-hunger folks and Big Food are at odds over almost everything. But over the next few months, we’ll likely see well funded lobbyists, embattled grassroots advocates, and ag and education lawmakers stepping into the ring, arms swinging.

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