House Approps approves 2015 Ag bill

The House Appropriations Committee last week approved a fiscal year 2015 Agriculture appropriations bill by a vote of 31 to 18.

But House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Sam Farr, D-Calif., said it would face a series of problems as it moves to the House floor because it contains a provision requiring the Agriculture Department to grant waivers from school meal nutrition requirements to any schools that say they have lost money in the program for six months.

The bill also maintains a provision in the subcommittee version to end the Agriculture Department’s ban on white potatoes in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced an amendment to take out the subcommittee potato provision, but it was voted down by voice vote.

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif. made the comment on floor prospects as the House Appropriations Committee prepared to vote on an amendment he had written to strike the school meals provision.

“This section is a poison pill in this bill,” Farr said, adding that Democrats will oppose the bill and that when it gets to the floor it will be tied up by a lengthy debate.

The committee vote was 22 in favor and 29 against along party lines against Farr’s amendments, with the Democrats supporting Farr and the Republicans opposing the amendment.

During the debate, Farr and other Democrats repeated many of the same statements that have been made in recent days by First Lady Michelle Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and others that the waiver authority should not be created because most schools are already meeting the standards.

Farr said that 90 percent of the bill was good, but that 10 percent including the school meals provision is “really bad.”

Schools should not be allowed to go back to serving junk food, Farr said, noting that firefighters and military personnel are no longer served junk food.

House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., noted that the School Nutrition Association, which represents the school meal preparers, supports the waiver.

Aderholt maintained that the bill doesn’t roll back the standards, but gives the schools more time.

“If schools are not struggling they don’t have to change anything,” Aderholt said.

But when Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., asked Aderholt if the Republicans intend to change the standards, Aderholt replied “not in this bill.” That remark, greeted by laughter, was was apparently a reference to the reauthorization of the child nutrition programs scheduled for 2015.

Aderholt also said that the current rules are so complex that USDA has had to send out many memorandums detailing implementation.

The debate also turned into an ideological one about the influence of government in society.

Aderholt said that “USDA wants to dictate” to local communities. He added that he had been talking to people “who work in the lunch rooms” and many of them don’t eat the new foods.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, said, “We should not allow any school to opt out of anything. We should help the schools.”

Republicans emphasized the increased cost of the requirements that fat, sugar and sodium be reduced and that the meals include low-fat meat and dairy, whole grains and more fruits and vegetables.

Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., noted USDA has said that 90 percent of the schools are successfully complying with the new requirements.

“I don’t consider it a success when some schools can’t balance their books,” Roby said.

DeLauro suggested that members “go back and take a look at school budgets.” Schools often “raid” school food budgets, DeLauro said, when they find themselves short of money for other purposes.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said that “the debate shows why the country resents Washington, D.C. We don’t trust local people to make local decisions.”

House Appropriations Committee ranking member Nita Lowey, D-N.Y, noted that there had been “a reference to the big hand of government,” but that she would prefer to think about “the helpful hand of government.” F

–The Hagstrom Report