Videos & Speeches

Mr. President, thank you, two weeks ago, I spoke here on the Senate floor about some of my concerns about the pending legislation that we have been talking about now—a number of appropriations bills—including the committee report on agriculture. The last time we visited about this, I talked about the GIPSA rules. I want to focus on one more area of concern in this appropriations bill; that is, that the Department of Agriculture has proposed a rule to revise the nutrition requirements for the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program.

   In its current form, the rule contains some impractical nutrition standards and goals. I don't think there is any question that all of us in the Senate, and certainly every parent I know, would want—we all want our children to have nutritious food and we want them to have nutritious food at home and at school. That is not the point. It is not the question. What I question is whether the Department of Agriculture's rule is realistic for schools, and for those who provide food to the schools, if they are able to comply with this new rule.

   For example, as written, the rule would exclude many nutritious vegetables in school meal programs. Appropriately, the Senate adopted an amendment offered by Senator Collins from Maine, which I supported, that allows school nutritionists to continue to make their own recommendations based upon the most recent dietary guidelines for Americans, rather than having to follow the mandates issued in this latest USDA rule. In my view, that is exactly where these decisions should be made: in schools around our country by nutritionists—not mandated here by our government in Washington, DC.

   Furthermore, we must keep in mind the impact this rule will have on school budgets and food suppliers. Unfunded mandates like this one will make it even harder for schools to provide healthy lunches for students.

   The Department of Agriculture estimates that the cost of compliance over a 5-year period will reach $6.8 billion. The Federal reimbursement already does not cover the full cost of preparing a meal in many schools across our country. This new USDA rule will further drive up the costs of providing lunches and school districts will have to make up the difference. This doesn't seem like a reasonable approach when many school  districts are already struggling to make ends meet.

   Let me give an example of what is in this rule. Once finalized, schools would be required to reduce sodium content in breakfasts by up to 27 percent and school lunches by up to 54 percent. There are a couple problems with this requirement. There is no suitable replacement for sodium that can maintain the same functions of flavor and texture. Also, reducing sodium is not just a function of limiting raw salt content. Many ingredients have salt in them, sodium in them, that occurs naturally.

   School food suppliers have been working for years to reduce the amount of sodium in their food products. However, they need additional time to come up with a solution that balances nutritional value with taste so kids will eat the school lunch.

   This rule would also change how nutritional content is measured—rather than measure nutrition based on density, the Department of Agriculture rule proposes to measure nutritional content based on volume. For example, tomato paste is nutritionally dense, but the Department of Agriculture says it must meet the same volume as a fresh tomato. That doesn't make much sense. Why would we take a metric to be the arbitrary volume requirement instead of just measuring the nutritional value?

   The bottom line is, kids can still get the right nutrients from food products if they are measured by nutritional content.

   A more sensible approach to making sure children have healthy options for breakfast and lunch would be to work together with scientists, nutritionists, and industry representatives toward a set of intermediate goals. Food costs, service operations, and student participation rates could then be more closely evaluated before moving on to the next goal. This would give school districts and food suppliers the chance to make changes in a more reasonable timeframe.

   Our colleagues in the House included a provision in their version of this legislation that directed the Department of Agriculture to issue a new proposed rule that would not add unnecessary and costly regulations to the school lunch and breakfast programs. Unfortunately, this language was not included in the Senate version of the bill, and, in conference, I will continue to work with my colleagues to make sure the Department of Agriculture is not making it harder for schools to provide healthy lunches but instead is working alongside local schools and their officials to develop better nutritional goals.