U.S. Senate nutrition hearing seeks new national strategy

50-year crisis cited, but no mention of 50-year low-fat regime’s role

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, November 5, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. – “Half of the U.S. population is pre-diabetic or has type II diabetes, and one out of almost every three dollars in the federal budget goes to healthcare, with 80% of that spending on treatment of preventable chronic diseases,” said Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), chairman of Senate Ag’s nutrition subcommittee as he and ranking member Mike Braun (R-Ind.) began the hearing on the state of nutrition in America Tuesday, Nov. 2. 

Calling the situation a crisis, senators and witnesses cited statistics that have worsened over the past 50 years.

“Our healthcare costs today are 20% of GDP. In the 1960s, it was 7%. It has tripled in 50 years,” said Sen. Braun. In 1960, he said, 3% of the population was obese. Today it’s over 40%, with more than 70% of the population either obese or overweight.

“More shocking,” said Booker, “is that 25% of teenagers are pre-diabetic or have type II diabetes, and 70% are disqualified from military service” — with the number one medical reason being overweight or diabetic.

Witnesses and senators blamed the “epidemic” on a food system designed to solve 20th century problems of ending hunger by investing in cheap calories – especially carbohydrates. They indicated that 21st century goals should be focused on designing a food system that delivers nutrition and makes the nation healthier.

“We want to rethink the way we approach food and nutrition policy. Our lives literally depend on it,” said Sen. Booker, “This nutrition crisis we face is a threat — the greatest threat to the health and well-being of our country and a threat to our economic security and our national security.”

That’s why Senators Booker and Braun recently introduced bipartisan legislation to convene public and private stakeholders in what would be the second White House conference ever to be held on food and nutrition. The first was convened in the late 1960s, when then Senators George McGovern and Bob Dole formed a select nutrition committee in a time of food shortages and high prices.

That time-period was also when the precursor to the Dietary Guidelines was established, which by the 1980s had become the official and now notorious Dietary Guidelines cycle.

While Tuesday’s hearing continually hit this notion that 52 years later we have all of these devastating statistics, it was interesting that there was zero mention of the Dietary Guidelines. Those words were not uttered by any senator or any witness at any point in the over two-hour-long hearing.

Another item that did not pass through any lips Tuesday was the acknowledgment that 52 years of the low-fat dietary regime has prevailed and has progressively tightened its hold over school diets even as these statistics, especially on youth, have worsened into crisis-mode. 

The closest anyone got to mentioning dietary fat was when Senator Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), a doctor by profession, asked witnesses if they thought the CDC missed an opportunity to do public service announcements about “nutrition and building up our own immune systems” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He talked about volunteering in the ICU and ER of a south Kansas hospital in the spring of 2020 when COVID was sweeping the land.

“There were eight ICU beds and 11 patients, all in their 50s, and all had diabetes or pre-diabetes. Immediately, I called the CDC and said, ‘this virus is going to assault this country.’” He observed that our rates of morbidity and mortality are higher with this virus than some other countries because almost half of the population is diabetic or pre-diabetic.

Sen. Marshall voiced his frustration: “We’ve had a year and a half of this virus, and I thought this might be an awakening for this country, that if we had a better, healthier immune system, that’s how you fight viruses.”

One of the five witnesses — Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian of the Tufts University Friedman School of Food and Nutrition Policy – responded to say that alongside developing vaccines, treatments and guidelines for social distancing, “the huge additional foundational effort should have been to improve our overall metabolic health through better nutrition. So, every time we talk about vaccines, social distancing, mask wearing, why aren’t we talking about nutrition?”

“Everything we need to know about nutrition I learned from my mother and my grandmother,” said Sen. Marshall. “We need to be using our medical assets for nutrition education. Doctors need to understand that Vitamins D, A, E and K are fat-soluble vitamins, so we need to be drinking our whole milk and looking at these general concepts.”

This was the hearing’s only – and subtle — reference to dietary fat. It was the only, but quiet, nod to any suggestion of the impact of federal government restrictions on the diets of children during school hours while their rates of obesity and type II diabetes continue to rise to epidemic proportions. Not one witness or senator delved into this topic in any substantial way.

Throughout the hearing, that seemed to focus on a new paradigm in food and nutrition, there were also strong references to a key part of the problem — the food industry is controlled by a handful of large multinational corporations providing nutrient-poor, addictive and ultra-processed foods.

“Farmers answered the call of a growing population and issues with malnutrition 50 years ago. Through innovation, agriculture makes more from less and works to protect our soils along the way. We’ve made progress but are still geared to address caloric intake, not the content of the calories,” said Sen. Braun. 

He focused his comments on the healthcare industry being the place to make new investments in nutrition as a preventive solution and indicated SNAP purchase restrictions are in order.

Dr. Angela Rachidi, doing poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute said putting SNAP program restrictions on sugary beverages and incentives for purchasing fruits and vegetables would be positive steps to show SNAP is serious about nutrition. She referenced studies showing that three of the five largest purchase categories with SNAP dollars are sweetened beverages, frozen prepared meals, and dessert items.

Mozaffarian was the first of the five witnesses. He did not mention his Tufts University “Food Compass” project by name, which was published three weeks ago, nor did he mention the $10 million grant received three weeks ago from USDA to develop a “cultivated meat industry,” including assessment of consumer attitudes and development of K-12 education on cell-cultured meat.

“We are on a path to disaster,” he said, calling type II diabetes America’s “canary in the coal mine,” on which the U.S. spends $160 billion annually.

Describing current food and nutrition policy as “fragmented and inefficient,” Mozaffarian said: “Nutrition has no home, no body for focus or leadership across the federal government.”

Mozaffarian’s six recommended government actions paint a picture of a centralized national structure and authority for food and nutrition policy with emphasis on integration of research, the healthcare system, programs like school lunch, and ramping up new innovation startups entering the food system.

He stressed his belief that a “real national strategy” is needed, one that “reimagines the future food system.” He said the science and tools are already available to do this, to integrate into existing programs and make changes – fast.

Perhaps the “tools” Mozaffarian was referring to are within the new Tufts Food Compass he helped create, which ranked “almondmilk” and “soymilk” ahead of skim milk and far ahead of whole milk. It also puts chocolate milk and some types of cheeses near the bottom of the ‘minimize’ category, along with unprocessed beef. 

In fact, the only high-scoring dairy product found in the ‘encouraged’ category was whole Greek yogurt. Cheerios and sweet potato chips ranked higher than dairy products, including the whole Greek yogurt.

Also testifying was Dr. Patrick Stover of Texas A&M’s Agri-Life Center. He noted the public’s “lack of trust” in nutrition science. 

He stressed that the nation’s land grant universities are “a network of extraordinary resources, a national treasure” that benefits from having public trust but lost federal investment levels over the years. 

Stover said Texas A&M is now launching an institute for advancing health through agriculture as well as an agriculture, nutrition and food science center for non-biased research on the human, environmental and economic success of proposed changes.

He supports a “systemic approach to connect people to food and health,” an approach that involves everyone from farm to consumer. He said Agri-Life is positioned to lead such an effort through the land grant university system. 

Stover noted scientists involved in the precision nutrition initiative at the National Institutes of Health are starting to understand how individuals interact with food in relation to these chronic diseases.

“One size does not fit all,” he said.

Witnesses Dr. Angela Odoms-Young, director of Food and Nutrition Education in Communities at Cornell, as well as Dr. Donald Warne, director of public health programs at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine, both talked about the cultural aspects of food. They referenced differing experiences of populations separated from lands and cultures where food was accessible and how certain demographic populations are being targeted by fast-food advertising that is leading to higher rates of chronic diet-related diseases among native Americans and people of color.

Poverty and reliance on cheap highly processed foods was part of that discussion.

“Poor diets and overconsumption of calories are a major crisis,” Dr. Rachidi stressed as a former deputy commissioner of New York City social services overseeing the SNAP program. “Nutrition assistance programs have mixed success” providing food security but also contributing to the problem of poor nutrition.

She said current nutrition policies lack a cohesive strategy. On the one hand harsh restrictions in some programs and no restrictions in others.

“We have to acknowledge the reality, the billions we spend to improve food security are used in a way that is a major contributor to poor health,” said Rachidi.

At the conclusion, chairman Booker stressed his belief that there is a misalignment of government.

“The farmer’s share of the consumer dollar from beef to broccoli has gone down 50% in a food system where everyone is losing,” said Booker. “We are losing the health of our country, seeing the challenges with farmers and the disappearance of family farms, the issues of food workers, what’s happening with animals and the environment. Let’s not be fooled. This is not a free market right now.”

He noted that farmers are “stuck in mono-cropping” without incentives to move to more regenerative agriculture. “We love farmers. They aren’t the problem. We have to figure out a way to align incentives with policy decisions because it is out of whack.”

Asked by Booker to give a ‘business perspective,’ ranking member Braun concluded that the best place to implement a solution is to do it where the most money is being spent on the problem and that is the healthcare system. Food is a bargain, which addresses hunger, “but we need to reconstitute the quality of the calories,” he said, putting the emphasis on the nutrient density of foods.

-30-

The long and the short of it

In all, 11 people testified during the Pennsylvania Senate Majority Policy Committee’s public hearing about the federal prohibition of whole milk in schools. I testified (right) in one of three panels, which also included (l-r) Nelson Troutman, Bernie Morrissey and Jackie Behr.
Below is the shorter, oral version of my full written testimony for the June 16, 2021 public hearing.

By Sherry Bunting

Good morning Honorable Chairman Scavello and Senate Committee. Thank you for inviting me to testify on whole milk choice in schools. My name is Sherry Bunting. As an ag journalist 40 years and former Eastern Lancaster County School Board member 8 years, not to mention as a mother and a nana, I see this from many sides.

From the dairy side, fluid milk sales had their steepest decline over the past decade as seen in the chart (above) with my written statement. There was a decline slowly before that, but you can see the drop off after 2010.

That was the year Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Two years prior, the national dairy checkoff, which farmers must pay into, signed a memorandum of understanding with USDA to advance the department’s Dietary Guidelines using the checkoff’s Fuel Up to Play 60 program in schools — promoting only fat-free and low-fat dairy.

(Note: This was confirmed in a May 2021 dairy checkoff press conference, stating that “DMI has been focusing on the youth audience ever since making its commitment to USDA on school nutrition in 2008,” and that Gen Z is the generation DMI has been working on since the launch of Fuel Up to Play 60, which was followed by the formation of GENYOUth and the signing of the memorandum of understanding, MOU, with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in that 2008-10 time period.)

By 2011, USDA had their data showing schools that voluntarily gave up whole and 2% milk were meeting the Department’s Dietary Guidelines more consistently — on paper — as far as fat content across the ‘served’ meals and the ‘a la carte’ offerings, combined.

With this data, USDA targeted whole and 2% milk, specifically, for mandatory removal from school grounds during school hours by 2012.

In fact, the ‘competing foods’ regulatory language at the time stated that even if you wanted to have a vending machine (with whole milk) as a fundraiser for FFA, it could only be open for two weeks for the fundraiser, maybe three. The rest of the time it had to be closed between the hours of midnight before the start of the school day and 30 minutes after the end of the school day.

This is how we are treating whole milk.

That looked good on paper, but the reality? Since 2008, the rate of overweight and diabetes has climbed fastest among teens and children after a decade of stipulations that you can only have whole milk until you’re 2 years old — and in the poorest demographics, who rely the most on school lunch and breakfast. This fact was acknowledged during a U.S. Senate Ag hearing on Childhood Nutrition in 2019, where senators even referenced a letter from 750 retired Generals sounding the alarm that young adults are too overweight to serve.

This is a federal and state issue, and I might add, a national security issue. Our state has an interest in the outcomes.

An example…

While Pennsylvania school doors are closed to whole milk — a fresh product most likely to be sourced from Pennsylvania farms — their doors are wide open to processed drinks profiting large global beverage and foodservice companies.

What the kids buy after throwing away the skimmed milk does not come close, as you’ve heard, to offering the minerals, vitamins and 8 grams of complete protein in a cup of whole milk. What’s on paper is not being realized by growing bodies, brains and immune systems. Not to mention the milkfat satiates and helps with absorption of some of those nutrients. A wise foodservice director who saw this coming told me in the late 1990s, while I was serving on the School Board, he said: “when too much fat is removed from a child’s diet, sugar craving and intake increase.” Some of the latest data show he was right.

School milk sales are 6 to 8% of total U.S. fluid milk sales. However, this represents, as you’ve heard, the loss of a whole generation of milk drinkers in one decade.

The Northeast Council of Farmer Cooperatives looked at school milk sales from 2013 through 2016 and reported that 288 million fewer half pints of milk were sold in schools during that period. This does not include half-pints that students were served but then discarded.

This situation impacts Pennsylvania’s milk market, farm-level milk price, and future viability — a factor in Pennsylvania losing 1,974 farms; 75,000 cows and 1.8 billion in production since 2009 – rippling through other businesses, ag infrastructure, revenue and jobs. We are, actually now, 8th in milk production in the U.S. If you go back 15 years, we were 4th. As of last year, we were passed by Minnesota.

The fat free / low fat push devalues milkfat as a component of the price paid to farms, making it a cheaper ingredient for other products. Our kids can have whole milk. There is no shortage of milk fat because if there was, producers would be paid a fairer price that reflected its value.

While the flaws in the Dietary Guidelines process would take a whole hearing in itself, Pennsylvania consumers see the benefits of milk fat in study after study and are choosing whole milk for their families. Redner’s Warehouse Markets, for example, reported to me their whole milk sales volumes are up 14.5%. Nationally, whole milk sales surpassed all other categories in 2019 for the first time in decades. So parents are choosing whole milk, and we saw that during Covid, and even before Covid.

Today, children receive one or two meals at school, and there’s a bill actually being considered by Congress to make three meals and a snack universal at school. Then what?

Many parents don’t even know that whole milk choice is prohibited. Even the New York State Senate Agriculture Committee, during a listening session on various issues, had a request brought up to legalize whole milk in schools. Three of the senators expressed their shock. One asked the person testifying — who is both a dairy farmer and an attorney — how could this be true? They thought she was joking.

(In fact, skepticism prompted Politifact to investigate. They confirmed, indeed, Lorraine Lewandrowski’s statement — “Make it legal for a New York state student to have a glass of fresh whole milk, a beautiful food from a beautiful land” — received the completely true rating on Politifact’s Truth-O-Meter because, yes, there is a federal prohibition of whole milk in schools.)

There’s just not enough people understanding that this is happening. Many people think the kids do have the choice, but they don’t.

My petition, that I started in late 2019, has nearly 25,000 signatures online. The links are with my written statement — and 5000 were mailed to me by snail-mail — so over 30,000 total. Nearly half of those are from Pennsylvania, and New York would be second as far as signatures, but we have signatures from every state in the nation.

When I looked through to vet it, to balance it and make sure we didn’t have people from other countries in these numbers, I started to see who was signing, from all walks of life — from farmers, to parents, to teachers, doctors, and on and on. Even state lawmakers, I recognized some names on there. The whole milk choice petition has opened eyes.

Thank you for this hearing, and please help bring the choice of whole milk back to our schools. Our children and dairy farmers are counting on us.

If I could just have a couple more seconds here, this is personal for me, as a grandmother. One of my grandchildren is lactose intolerant, or I should say, that’s how it would seem, but she has no trouble drinking whole milk at home. Her doctor says she may be lactose intolerant because she keeps coming home from school and having stomach problems at the end of the day. She now is not drinking the milk at school, just drinking whole milk at home. She can’t drink the skimmed milk, and there’s really some science behind that.

A professor in North Carolina (Richard C. Theuer, Ph.D.) mentioned this role of milk fat actually slowing the rate of carbohydrate absorption — which is the lactose. (As a member of the National Society for Nutrition and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences at North Carolina State University, Theuer addressed this in at least two public comments on the Dietary Guidelines Federal Register docket, once in 2018 and then again in 2019.)

I’ll end my comment here, sorry I went a little over.

— At the conclusion of my time, Pennsylvania Senate Majority Policy Committee Chairman Mario Scavello said this was a good place for me to end my testimony because “what we’ve heard here today is children are not drinking the skim milk and the low-fat milk. We’ve got to get this corrected, the more I listen to this,” he said. Then, turning to Nelson Troutman on the panel in regard to the 97 Milk education effort, Scavello added: “By the way, I did see that 97 percent bale. Thank you for explaining it because I thought, what is this about? I could see the bales while driving on I-80.”

-30-

Call to action: Feds ignore science on saturated fats, poised to tighten restrictions in 2020-25 guidelines

Where is our dairy industry? No time to waste!

dga2

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, April 3, 2020

 WASHINGTON, D.C. — While Congress, USDA and HHS are all consumed by the health concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is moving forward full-steam-ahead with what looks like more restrictions on saturated fats to be announced in May. Meanwhile, dairy leadership organizations sit on the sidelines, just letting it happen.

According to the Nutrition Coalition, and this reporter’s own following of the DGA Committee process, the process has been flawed from beginning and has reached a critical juncture. There is an urgent need for the public to pay attention and get involved.

Many had hoped the Committee would review and include the sound science and revelations about the flaws in the saturated fat limits in the current dietary guidelines to remove those restrictions or improve them in the 2020-25 guidelines. But the opposite is occurring.

As reported previously in Farmshine, some of the very best and most rigorous science on saturated fats and in relation to dairy fats vs. cardiovascular disease have been excluded from the review process from the very beginning.

Unfortunately, the process that began in 2019 is poised to move Americans even further down the wrong road with even more restrictive fat rules that will govern and inform all institutional feeding and which heavily influence the foodservice industry. Even worse, farmer checkoff funds are forced, by USDA, to help promote these unhealthy guidelines.

While National Milk Producers Federation, International Dairy Foods Association, Dairy Management Inc., and other industry organizations are silent, the Nutrition Coalition, founded by Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise, is sounding the alarm.

“We need your help to ensure that the federal government not continue to ignore large, government-funded rigorous clinical trials — the “gold standard” of evidence — that could reverse decades of misguided nutrition policy on the subject of saturated fats,” writes Teicholz in a recent communication.

She’s right. From the beginning, the DGA Committee was formed, and the research pre-screened by USDA, in such a way that many of the best studies and minds have been excluded.

Processed With Darkroom

Part of the screening process used by USDA for science that will be included or excluded from Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee consideration is this curious item shown above: “Framed around relevancy to U.S. Federal  Policy”. Committee members in October asked for more information on this research screening criteria. USDA explained it to them and those watching that this refers to including only the research that “aligns with current federal policy.”

Interestingly, one of the criteria for screening the research the Committee can consider is that it must “align with current federal policy.”

This dooms the entire process to a slanted view that is entrenched in the flawed bureacracy right from the start!

During the recent meeting of the DGA Committee in March — the last such meeting before release of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) in May or June 2020 — the Committee failed to consider any of this evidence on saturated fat.

Instead, the committee announced it had found the link between saturated-fats consumption and cardiovascular disease to be “strong,” for both children and adults.

In fact, the committee recently proposed lowering the caps on saturated fat even further, from the current 10% of calories down to 7%!

“These conclusions ignore the entire last decade of science, during which a growing number of scientists have concluded that the caps on saturated fats are not supported by the science,” Teicholz points out.

She cites the work of a group of leading scientists who have reviewed the research on saturated-fats and released a consensus statement.

“Scientists are concluding that the most rigorous and current science fails to support a continuation of caps on saturated fats,” writes Teicholz. “So, why is the current DGA Committee — yet again — simply rubber-stamping the status quo and ignoring the science?”

The Nutrition Coalition is working fervently to expose the flaws in the process the DGA Committee is using under the USDA Food Nutrition Services umbrella. This in turn is what is used by USDA and HHS to govern what Americans eat.

These are not just “guidelines”, these are edicts to which everything from school lunches to military provisions are tied.

In fact, even farmers are tied to these guidelines as the dairy checkoff program leaders maintain they cannot promote whole milk because they are governed by USDA to stick to the guidelines, forcing farmers to mandatorily fund this completely flawed and unscientific “government speech.”

Americans deserve a recommendation on dietary saturated fat that is based on the most current and rigorous science available, and the Nutrition Coalition is issuing a call to action for Americans to join them in calling on the 2020 DGA Committee to critically review the most up-to-date evidence and modify its position on saturated fats accordingly.

“When we refer to “rigorous science,” we mean the data from well-controlled, randomized, clinical trials—the type of evidence that can demonstrate cause and effect,” writes Teicholz. “These trials were conducted on some 75,000 people addressing the question: do saturated fats cause heart disease? The results are that fats have no effect on cardiovascular or total mortality. This evidence has never been directly reviewed by any DGA committee.

“Ignoring evidence in order to preserve the status-quo is not acceptable,” she continues. “It’s not good policy, and it has not been good for the health of the American people. With the next iteration of the guidelines, your help is more crucial than ever to ensure that the USDA critically review the most up-to-date evidence and modify the government’s position on saturated fats to reflect the science accurately.”

Meanwhile, the dairy industry leaders continue to drag their collective feet.

As reported in Farmshine over the past few years, the call to action and support for healthy recommendations that consider the science on saturated fats and the goodness of whole milk, for example, has been largely pursued by grassroots efforts while industry organizations either fall in lockstep with the guidelines or stay neutral on the sidelines.

Once again, it will be up to the grassroots to get involved, for the public to be aware and get involved, for the Congress to be contacted, informed and involved.

How many times have we heard industry leaders shrug their shoulders and say “it all hinges on the Dietary Guidelines”?

dga1

When presented at the October DGA meeting with the first 12,000 names on the “Bring the choice of Whole Milk Back to Schools” petition (now numbering close to 30,000 online and by mail), Brandon Lipps, USDA Deputy Under Secretary of Food Nutrition Services, gave this response: “We have to see the science start coming together and be sure to bring everyone in… into the process.” Now it appears the Dietary Guidelines that control food at school, daycare, work settings, military, and many other foodservice and institutional feeding settings will be even MORE restrictive allowing even LESS of the healthy fat we — especially our children — need. The fat we eat is not the fat we get! Why is USDA moving us further in the wrong direction and excluding the science on this?! Act now. There are links in this article to speak out. Sign the Whole Milk in Schools petition also!

If there is even a chance that our children can have whole milk and healthy meals at school, that farmers can use their mandatory checkoff to promote the true healthfulness of whole milk and full-fat dairy foods, this biased process of DGA Committee guidelines has got to be challenged in a big way.

Here’s how you can help.

Contact your Senators and Representatives in Congress with a simple message. Ask them to please ensure that USDA is not ignoring the science on saturated fats.

Below is a message that the Nutrition Coalition suggests, which you or your organization can adapt and share with others in communicating with members of Congress:

Please urge the agencies in charge of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), the USDA and HHS, to stop ignoring large clinical trials-the “gold standard” of evidence – that could reverse decades of misguided caps on saturated fats.

Shockingly, none of this evidence has ever been reviewed by any expert committee overseeing the science for the Guidelines. In fact, the current committee is pushing to lower the caps even further.

This is extremely alarming given that a growing number of prominent nutrition scientists have concluded the evidence shows that saturated fats have no effect on cardiovascular or total mortality. In fact, a recent panel of leading scientists reviewed the data and in a groundbreaking consensus statement, soon to be published in a medical journal, found that the science fails to support a continuation limits on saturated fats.

The current DGA committee appears to be one-sided and biased on this issue.

Please urge the USDA to stop ignoring the science and give serious consideration to lifting the caps on saturated fat for the upcoming 2020 DGA.

An easy way to do this online is available at this “take action” link https://www.nutritioncoalition.us/take-action

Or find the name and contact information for your Senators and Representative at this link and contact them that way https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members

Also, comment at the Federal Register docket for the DGA Committee by May 15, 2020. The sooner, the better, because the committee is expected to make its recommendations in May. Submit a comment to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee here https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=FNS-2019-0001

Also take this opportunity to sign this petition to “Bring the Choice of Whole Milk Back to Schools” at https://www.change.org/p/bring-whole-milk-back-to-schools

-30-

Child nutrition reauthorization sparked in D.C.

Military insights suggest backtracking, but disappointing answers given on school lunch and milk fat

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, April 26, 2019

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The last time a childhood nutrition authorization was passed by Congress was in 2010: The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. A decade later, the Senate Ag Committee held a hearing last Wednesday (April 10) on perspectives in childhood nutrition. 

Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said this is the first step in the reauthorization of the $30 billion in mandatory and discretionary childhood nutrition programs he wants examined and passed this year.

The hearing panels included representatives of federal agencies, state and community food programs, and the national childhood health program.

Most of the discussion centered on ways to streamline programs, increase enrollment that has been declining since 2010, and provide more flexibility.

There were a few eye-opening highlights and some discussion related to milk.

Chairman Roberts said in his opening statement: “One size fits all does not work for all.

Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) stated that, “Whether it’s a mother getting enough calcium to insure healthy bones for her baby, or making sure a 10-year-old isn’t fighting hunger pains in math class, child nutrition is about building a stronger future. It’s also important to our national security.”

Stabenow then revealed how and why the National School Lunch Program began 80 years ago, and what the concerns are today — two decades after the saturated fat limitations were introduced and a decade after the last reauthorization under the leadership of President Obama and Secretary Vilsack, when the screws were further tightened on milk choices and other aspects in 2009-10.

“Interestingly, the National School Lunch program was created in the 1940s because General Lewis Hershey came before Congress to explain that recruits were being rejected due to malnutrition,” said Stabenow. 

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)

“Today, over 750 retired Generals, and other military leaders, are sounding alarm bells again, this time because young adults are too overweight to serve,” she stated. “With 14% of children as young as 2 showing signs of obesity, we have to address this issue early and everywhere.”

That said, Sen. Stabenow touted the “tremendous progress in the past 20 years in schools and daycares. It is vital to move forward, not backward,” she stated, while in her next breath saying that “obesity in adolescents continues to rise while over 12 million kids do not have enough to eat.”

She touted the need for greater enrollment in the National School Lunch Program so kids can have access to that “better” lunch, breakfast, after school snacks and even supper. She talked about a “veggie van” driving out into communities. She cited the Women Infant and Children (WIC) program as critical to first stages of life.

But when her opening statement was said-and-done, Sen. Stabenow again touted “the progress made in 2010” and said several times “we don’t want to backtrack while streamlining these programs.”

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.)

Toward the end of the session, Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.) brought up “the science of milk” and addressed his question specifically to Dr. Olanrewaju Falusi, a pediatrician who is director of the Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C.

It was not surprising that the most important question of the day got the most disappointing and predictable answer. 

After hearing Dr. Falusi present her comments about how early childhood diets are responsible for critical programming of lifelong metabolism, brain development, and educational outcomes, Sen. Casey addressed Dr. Falusi as follows:

“There’s been much discussion in Pennsylvania about the ability of schools to serve whole milk to students. What does ‘the science’ say about the appropriate levels of whole milk consumption?” the Democratic Senator from Pennsylvania asked.


Dr. Olanrewaju Falusi, a pediatrician who is director of the Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C.

Predictably, Dr. Falusi replied: “As a pediatrician, I recommend to my patients that they drink water or low-fat or fat-free milk. We know that milk has many benefits from protein and calcium and Vitamin D. We also know, though, that lower fat and lower sugar in diets are healthier for children.”

Dr. Falusi continued matter-of-factly: “What we would admonish, from the American Academy of Pediatrics, is that the standards for school nutrition programs — including the type of milk served — really be based on the science, and the science is that lower fat and lower sugar are what we should be advocating for children. And we do encourage the USDA to rely on the nutrition experts and to look at a number of studies for those guidelines.”

Senator Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) asked about students turning to competitive foods when the school lunch does not appeal or satisfy. She addressed her concern to USDA Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, Brandon Lipps.

Lipps replied that the government seeks a balance between the school lunch and “competing foods” allowed on campus. He also noted they are “looking to see that kids are not leaving the school lunch line to buy competitive foods elsewhere on campus. But we’re not making the schools or states be the food police.”

Sen. Fischer asked: What are the foodservice professionals telling you? Are kids eating the school lunches?



Brandon Lipps, USDA Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services

Lipps replied that the “schools are very positive on the flexibilities in the final rule… It’s not a major change, just a comfort in long-term planning. Schools have to buy a long way out to plan their menus in the way that we require them to do. So they’re glad to have finality on the flexibility” (for example, they have flexibility to serve 1% flavored milk instead of only fat-free).

In response to the suggestion that the nutrition standards are “no good.” Lipps stated that, “We put in a calorie limit in 2009, and if the kids don’t eat half the food on their plate, and if they are getting half of the maximum calories that we provide them, if that’s happening, then that’s a problem.”

USDA is monitoring this, said Lipps: “As you know, the same is true, particularly with milk and the nutrients that it provides, so we are going to continue to listen and see if further flexibility is needed on that front.” 

Repeatedly, the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was cited for making “historic changes” that led to “greater consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains as encouraged by USDA.” But at the same time, panelists repeatedly said fewer eligible families and children use the programs today compared with before 2010, and that obesity and diabetes and hunger are rising in our youth.  

When asked by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) about school waste related to the 2010 changes, USDA Under Secretary Lipp said flexibility in the final rule on whole grains, sodium and 1% low-fat flavored milk went a long way toward changing that.

“I don’t think we have anyone telling us we need a major change in the nutrition meal pattern requirements for the school meal, but they do want flexibility,” said Lipp.

Sen. Ernst also noted the concerns about portion sizes being the same for a first-grader as an eighth-grader. “School foodservice professionals say they want the flexibility to vary it,” she said. “Right now, booster clubs are bringing in food for athletes who are not getting enough. And with mandated portions and mandated nutrition requirements, we are seeing a lot of food waste, what can USDA do?”

Lipp replied that USDA will continue to “look and listen.”

Josh Mathismeier, Director of Nutritional Services for Kansas City public schools and Mike Halligan, CEO of God’s Pantry Food Banks, based in Lexington, Kentucky, said participation would increase if they could take the food to the people instead of forcing the people to congregate to access the food.

Some states have actually hired market research firms to do focus groups with eligible families to learn how to increase their enrollment.

-30-