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NJ Daily

HEALTH

Grassroots, Lobbyists Pressure Congress On School Lunch

There are the Angry Moms like Rachael Hilliker of Michigan, who became an activist on improving school lunches when she found the prisons in her state had higher nutrition standards than her local schools.

There is the Moody Mommy in the Chicago area, who challenged Agriculture Secretary Vilsack in a conference call to be less concerned about corn producers and more worried about the problem of obesity in children.

 

And there are the scores of students who have taken to writing letters to lawmakers, like the seventh-grader who told Senate Agriculture ranking member Saxby Chambliss that every day his school meal is "roughly the same shade of unappetizing brown. The average daily lunch consists of pizza, fries, and chips..."

All are part of an expanding grassroots movement to put more nutrition in school meals that the federal government have subsidized since the end of World War II, but that many see as needing a 21st century overhaul. The wave of activism by parents, students, nutritionists, doctors and others is expected to crash on Capitol Hill this summer as Congress prepares to reauthorize child nutrition programs for the first time since 2004.

"Congress has really gotten an earful on the school lunch issue," said Susan Levin, director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. "They've heard from parents and students and doctors about how important it is to ensure that school lunch lines include fruits, vegetables, and healthy, plant-based meal options."

 

Megan Lott, who lobbies on nutrition programs for the National Farm to School Network, said she can tell the groundswell of interest in the issue has had an effect on lawmakers. "It used to be we'd have to go knock on doors in Congress and say, 'Please help us.' Now the offices are actually calling us," Lott said.

The debate on child nutrition programs is about to begin in earnest. A draft of a House reauthorization bill is expected to be released today and the Senate is poised to take up a bill approved in March by the Senate Agriculture Committee. A majority of members in both chambers have asked House and Senate leaders to schedule action before the current authorization expires Sept. 30.

President Obama has asked Congress to add $10 billion more to child nutrition programs over the next 10 years. The Senate Agriculture Committee's bill would add $4.5 billion over a decade, but advocates are hoping the House bill goes further. First Lady Michelle Obama has energized the grassroots efforts with her very public campaign to attack childhood obesity, making proponents of change more hopeful than ever.

"Sometimes it takes the government a while to react to public health problems, as it did with tobacco, but I think Congress is ready to move on healthier school lunches," said Levin.

 

If changes are made to improve school lunches, much of the credit will belong to a movement that has spread rapidly across the country in recent years.

Hilliker, a government worker in Lansing, Mich., signed on when she discovered her 18-month-old daughter was being served Pop Tarts, sugary cereals and fruits slathered in syrup at a public school day-care center. "The kicker for me is when I found out that most prisons have to have a dietician approve food served in prisons and I said, 'Wait, you mean we have dieticians making our prison menus, but not our school menus?' "

Hilliker learned about a documentary called "Two Angry Moms," which tells the story of two parents' efforts to change local school menus, and she organized a screening of the film in her hometown.

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Many other parents around the country have done the same thing, said John Lippmann, a spokesman for the Angry Moms featured in the film, producer Amy Kalafa and physician Susan Rubin. Several hundred people a week are now calling the group, "frustrated and [wanting] to know how they can change their local districts," he said. The Angry Moms are now linked with more than 200 local organizations lobbying Congress on the reauthorization bills, he said.

Another group deep into the battle, City Harvest in New York, has been pushing hard on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to advocate for increased funding for child nutrition programs by at least $1 billion a year, and preferably more. Gillibrand is a member of the Agriculture Committee, and City Harvest's chief lobbyist, Kristen Mancinelli, was in the room when the panel approved its reauthorization bill in March.

City Harvest followed up by getting more than 4,000 New Yorkers to write Gillibrand and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., in May, urging them to boost funding for school lunches by as much as $4 billion a year. That would raise the current reimbursement rate of $2.68 per lunch by about 70 cents, enough to make a real difference in the quality of food provided, Mancinelli said.

"The NYC Department of Education serves 860,000 school meals every day, second only to the Department of Defense, so New York City's stakes in the final form the bill takes are high," City Harvest Executive Director Jilly Stephens said in a recent op-ed.

Others are taking a blunt hammer to federal officials in their efforts to promote changes, such as the Chicago area's blogging "Moody Mommy" who slammed Vilsack in a conference call in February for "catering to our corn industry" -- makers of high fructose corn syrup.

When Vilsack responded that "We won't stop providing resources to those who grow corn," the Moody Mommy railed against him in a blog. "What cost should we bear?" she asked. "The cost of losing the money from the corn growers or the cost of losing human lives to obesity and diabetes? There is no middle ground here."

The Corn Refiners Association, a trade group for producers of corn syrup and other foods that form a large portion of school meals, did not respond to interview requests.

"Some folks in the food industry are realizing how serious the childhood obesity problem has become," said Levin, of the physicians' group. "Others are still reacting defensively."

One industry that has jumped into the nutrition movement is the American Beverage Association, whose member companies pledged in 2006 to remove full-calorie, high-sugar drinks from all schools nationwide. The process is now complete, said association spokesman Kevin Keane.

"There was discussion about vending machines in schools," he said, "and some of our member companies wanted to be more proactive, and this was an opportunity." Now the association, which includes Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo., Inc., is backing the effort to set nutrition standards for all foods provided in schools, he said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., smiles when he hears about Coca-Cola removing its sweetest products from schools, a spokesman for the senator said. Leahy had urged the company more than 20 years ago to remove high-sugar drinks from schools, and the result was a very public and very nasty battle, the spokesman said.

Times have certainly changed. "It seems that we have another local group pop up every week wanting to introduce more local vegetables into the schools," Leahy's spokesman said.

This article appears in the June 12, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.

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