WASHINGTON — Lawmakers and government officials are again engaged in a food fight, this time with Republican lawmakers hungry to lift new federal limits on the calories of school lunches served to 32 million students.
The lawmakers have introduced legislation targeting the “nutrition nannies” at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, contending that their “calorie rationing’” is leaving students hungry.
The anti-obesity rules championed by first lady Michelle Obama require schools in the federally subsidized lunch program to serve more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free and low-fat milk. They also limit calories — 850 for lunches served to high school students.
The latest fight comes a year after lawmakers debated whether pizza should be considered a vegetable. Congress declared that two tablespoons of tomato paste slathered on pizza could continue to be classified as a full vegetable serving in the federal school lunch program.
Reps. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., sponsors of the “No Hungry Kids Act,” portray the standards — which grew out of legislation passed in 2010 in the closing days of the Democratic-controlled Congress — as another symbol of Washington’s regulatory excess.
Huelskamp has called attention to videos produced by high school students in his state — one called “We Are Hungry,” showing volleyball players collapsing on the court from hunger, and another called “The HUNGER Games — A Parody of the 2012 School Lunch Program,” featuring one student complaining: “Really? One pig in a blanket.”
“The goal of the school lunch program is supposed to be feeding children, not filling the trash cans with uneaten food,” said Huelskamp.
The critics contend that the calorie limits are driving hungry kids to fill up on junk food. The two congressional offices set up a Facebook page — Nutrition Nannies — that has generated debate on the rules.
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, defended the rules. She pointed out that King is locked in a tough race against Democrat Christie Vilsack, wife of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“If we’re going to spend $13 billion on school lunch and breakfast, we should make sure that it provides good nutrition for kids,” she said.
“Maybe part of the problem for some kids is they’ve become so used to the gigantic portion sizes at restaurants that normal portion sizes don’t seem like enough,” Wootan said.
The rules limit lunch calories to 650 for kindergarten through fifth grades and to 700 for sixth grade through eighth grades.
Federal officials say that physically active students who may need more calories, such as athletes, can bring a snack from home or buy an additional serving at lunch.
Agriculture Department spokeswoman Alyn Kiel said the new standards are based on recommendations from an independent panel of doctors, nutritionists and other experts “to ensure that meals paid for with hard-earned tax dollars are healthy and balanced.”
“The calorie range actually exceeds what most schools were serving students previously, and the standards place no limit on food that students can purchase in addition to or instead of the taxpayer-subsidized meals,” she said, adding: “But the fact is that you can’t feed an entire school like they’re linebackers because not everyone needs that many calories.”
Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association said it may be taking time for students to adjust to the changes, but “there are a lot of schools out there that are not having major problems with implementation of the new standards.”
If students are going hungry, it may be because they’re not finishing their meals, she said.
“What kids are reacting to is that the standards do limit the portion size for the protein and grain elements,” she said. “So they may be seeing slightly smaller center-of-the-plate items. But to compensate, the fruit and vegetable servings have gotten bigger. If kids are not eating their fruits and vegetables, it’s those fiber-rich foods that can help kids stay satiated through the day. But if they’re not eating all of the items available with the school lunch, then perhaps they will be hungry before the end of the school day.”