GOP Lawmakers Want to Ditch Healthy School Lunch Rules

What Obesity Problem? Two Congressmen try to add more calories to school lunch.

(Photo: Getty Images)
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Now that we’re all officially back to school (yes, we’re looking at you, Chicago), the 32 million students who participate in the National School Lunch Program have probably noticed a change in what’s on their lunch plates.

More fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and a cap on the number of calories being served. Kids in kindergarten through fifth grade are limited to 650 calories. For seventh and eighth grade, that number bumps up to 700 calories, and high school students are capped at 850 calories. Why? It’s part of the updated guidelines called for in the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

One in three American children today is overweight or obese. Many health experts agree that limiting the calories on the plate is a good starting place to address the epidemic, particularly when we know that many children consume nearly half their daily calories at school.

RELATED: Obama and Romney's Food Policy Priorities: In Their Own Words

But U.S. Reps. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., are trying to repeal the calorie cap with their No Hungry Kids Act, H.R. 6418, introduced by King last week. Never mind that the calorie recommendations are based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and studies done by the Institute of Medicine, and are similar to recommendations made by the Mayo Clinic, the American Heart Association and others.

They argue in part, that athletes, like football players, aren’t getting the calories they need, and show up at after-school practice hungry. Regan Hopper, a spokesperson with the USDA Food & Nutrition Service, says that’s not the case.

“Local schools do have flexibility in the meal patterns to make available more fruits and vegetables or a second carton of milk. There are also after-school snack programs that schools can look into for students,” Hopper tells TakePart. “We have an obesity epidemic; we must address it.”

But King’s bill specifically would eliminate the new calorie limits.  

“The misguided nanny state, as advanced by Michelle Obama's 'Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act,' was interpreted by Secretary Vilsack to be a directive that, because some kids are overweight, he would put every child on a diet,” King says in a statement that sounds more politically motivated than it does concerned over what kids are being served for lunch.

In fact, the jab at USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack is likely a poke at his wife too. Christie Vilsack is running for office, vying for the very seat King is hoping to keep, and her prospects look good.

“GOP internal polling shows a single-digit race, with King picking up less than 50 percent of the vote. This week, one plugged-in national Republican privately named King as one of the five GOP incumbents most likely to not return to Congress next year,” writes Shira Toepliz for Roll Call. And according to Politico, Pete Sessions, the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, had a “Come to Jesus” talk with King recently.

We don’t know if that scolding had anything to do with King’s No Hungry Kid bill, or if it was related to some of his other policy moves, like the midnight egg amendment he slipped into the 2012 Farm Bill. But what we do know is King has a seat on the powerful House Agriculture Committee, and that this congressional race is one to watch closely if you’re concerned with critical food issues.

And for the super-wonks in the crowd, King isn’t the only Ag Committee member whose reelection is uncertain. Keith Good over at FoodPolicy.com has the list of races that include committee members embroiled in several tight races. Will inaction on the 2012 Farm Bill revamp the House Ag Committee? We’ll know come November.

More on food politics and the 2012 elections:

Farmers and Hungry Families Wait for Help as Congress Dithers on Farm Bill

New Food Safety Rules Delayed by Election Year Politics

Big Ag’s Big Money in the 2012 Elections (Infographic)

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