Senate targets farm bill for school lunch reform

Subsidies encourage high-fat meals, say dietitians, politicians

November 25, 2007|By Nicole Gaouette | Nicole Gaouette,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- When Ann Cooper took over the lunch program for the Berkeley, Calif., schools, she found children eating chicken nuggets and Tater Tots ("Pre-flash fried with corn fillers and corn coating," she tut-tutted). There was also canned fruit cocktail and chocolate milk ("both with high-fructose corn syrup").

The lunches averaged 800 to 900 calories, much higher than federal guidelines, and were loaded with salt. "That is just crazy in a world of obesity," Cooper said.

Cooper instituted roast chicken, a salad bar, fresh fruit, vegetables and low-fat milk. The former gourmet chef and other nutrition experts believe such healthful foods should be served at all schools but point to a major obstacle: Congress.

Parents, nutrition advocates and physicians want Congress to overhaul the farm bill - which sets the nation's agricultural agenda every five years - to put better food on children's cafeteria trays. Last week, the drive to rewrite that bill stalled in the Senate, possibly delaying it until next year. But advocates said the setback would give them time to make the case that the bill is to blame for much of the unhealthful food in schools.

"Farm bills always favor the status quo when they're rushed," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. "This gives us some time to educate people."

For decades, farm bill battles have been waged over subsidies. But this year, nutrition has also been at the forefront of the debate. The $288 billion Senate bill would spend more on fruits and vegetables, but children's health advocates say that it still tilts much more toward subsidizing farmers than promoting healthful food. They are concerned about rising rates of diet-driven diseases, such as obesity and diabetes. Groups such as the President's Cancer Panel have linked agricultural policy and cancer directly.

For Cooper, who calls herself the "renegade lunch lady," the priority is children's health. "If we want to significantly impact the long-term health of our children, we need to change the food in the center of the plate, the entree," she said. "The farm bill negatively impacts the entree by subsidizing food we don't necessarily eat, like corn and soy. There's so much fat hidden in these highly processed foods that end up on our kids' plates."

Critics such as Cooper point to the system of subsidies for commodity crops, such as corn and soy, which are converted inexpensively into sweeteners and fats for processed foods. The subsidies, they say, make fast food less expensive than fresh fruit and vegetables. The government also buys much of the excess crops, which are then turned into foods such as cheese, pizzas and corn dogs and sent to schools for lunches. On each school day in 2006, more than 30 million children participated in the program.

Federal officials who buy commodities for school lunches counter that these purchases make up only 20 percent of a meal. Food industry lobbyists also contend that the problem is not the subsidies or even their products, but the way those products are used, marketed and consumed. Other analysts contend that ending subsidies won't end overproduction.

But a wide variety of critics, including the White House, are targeting the expensive subsidy system. Some claim that it hurts the environment, others question the cost to taxpayers and some, such as Cooper, focus on public health.

Lawmakers must return to the bill before payments to certain crops run out by the 2008 harvest season. The Senate and House bill also faces a veto threat from President Bush, who says that it actually increases payouts.

The Senate bill would funnel about $42 billion to farmers at a time when many crop prices are at record highs. Average farm income hovers around $80,000, while nationwide the average household earns about $60,000. Only about one-third of the nation's farmers receive the subsidies, about $26 billion of which are "direct payments" that go to farms because at one point a major commodity, such as cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat or rice, was grown on the land - even if that crop is no longer raised.

But for the first time in the eight decades that Congress has debated farm bills, there is the possibility of significant change, some of it driven by concerns about children's health.

Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, and Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican, say that children face a shorter life span than their parents and point to improved diet as one way to reverse that reality. They want to amend the Senate bill to dismantle the system of agriculture subsidies and plow $2 billion of the savings into farmers markets and organic farming, more fruit and vegetable purchases for schools, expanding nutrition education and supplying schools and military bases with nutritious food from local farms.

Their amendment, known as the Fresh Act, or Farm Ranch Equity Stewardship and Health Act, also would funnel $1.5 billion to the fruit, nut and vegetable farmers who produce nearly half of all the farm goods sold but have received little support in previous farm bills.

The Senate bill, even without the amendments, would make significant changes. Under Agriculture Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, the bill was drawn up to send unprecedented amounts of money to bolster the production of fruits, vegetables and organic crops.

The bill would expand a pilot program Harkin began with the 2002 farm bill that provides elementary schools with fresh fruit and vegetables for snacks. The program, which started in four states and now serves 175,000 children in 14 states, would be available to 4.5 million children nationwide, with funds jumping from $9 million to $1 billion over five years - "a quantum leap," Harkin said.

Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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