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Nutrition Issues Highlighted at House Ag Committee Hearing

At a House Ag Committee hearing on Wednesday, lawmakers and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack highlighted nutrition related issues.

Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R., Tex.) had the following exchange with Sec. Vilsack on Dietary Guidelines:

Rep. Conaway: Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is rumored to be wanting to eliminate red meat from our diets as a part of those guidelines. I guess, you know, coming from cattle country, I’m a little fired up about that. That whole panel I hope is focused on nutrition science in terms of developing those guidelines. Can you talk to us a little bit about—in fact do you have all the authority—it’s a joint responsibility with HHS. Do you have all the authorities you need to insist that it’s nutrition science that drives that train?

Sec. Vilsack: Yes, and I think the operative word of your question was “rumored.” That’s just not the case.

Rep. Conaway: Well, whether it’s reducing size of portions, all those kind of things—

Sec. Vilsack: No. I…as it relates to… Well, first of all, these are recommendations which the Department of Health & Human Services and the Department of Agriculture are free to accept, reject, or modify based on, ultimately, the decision-making that we are responsible for. Secondly, these folks get together, they do literature review of the latest science. It’s supposed to be driven by science and it needs to be driven by science. There is a lot of issues that have to be resolved yet. This is by no means finalized.

Rep. Conaway: Okay.

Sec. Vilsack: And then last, but not least, I would be surprised if the recommendations relative to meat are fundamentally different than they were in previous [guidelines].

Rep. Conaway: Can you give me a sense of what the timeline is and the steps between here and that final recommendation and report, whatever it is that goes on?

Sec. Vilsack: Sure. I think that we will be getting the guidelines—the recommendations, rather—very soon, within a matter of weeks, if not days. Then our team basically begins the process of working collaboratively with HHS to—and they’re the lead agency in this go round. I would anticipate and expect by the fall to early winter we’d have whatever the recommendations are going to—the new guidelines are going to be.

Rep. Conaway: All right. Well, again, you know, we’ve mentioned the science-based decision-making process, and nutrition science ought to drive the train and not sustainability or environment things, other things like that. It ought to be nutrition-based science, so appreciate that.

And Rep. Rodney Davis (R., Il.) brought up issues associated with school nutrition with Sec. Vilsack:

Rep. Davis: The issue that I always talk to you about, school nutrition. I wanted to thank you for putting out the guidance, the guidance memo for the exemption that our schools can apply for if they show hardship for the whole grain requirement. And also I want to thank you for implementing the freeze in current sodium levels until science can further back up target levels which will benefit the health of…which would be shown to benefit the health of children. In your view, how are the schools going to be able to benefit from these provisions, and do you support efforts to continue providing this flexibility?

Sec. Vilsack: Well, throughout this process we’ve indicated a willingness to be flexible as circumstances dictated. I think we’re very excited about the opportunities that we’re pursuing with our Team Up For Success initiative, which is designed to mentor and pair up school districts that are having a difficult time dealing with the new requirements, for whatever reason, with school districts that are similarly situated—similar size, similar geographic location. There was a day and a half seminar that was done down at Mississippi, University of Mississippi. We sort of piloted this notion. It was very well received. And so we want to see if we can continue doing that.

We obviously want to continue the smarter lunchroom grants and the school equipment grants, and the other financial resources that we’re making available. So it is a combination of a variety of things, and I think that’s why we’re seeing general acceptance, notwithstanding some of the concerns that have been expressed by school districts and by students. A recent survey showed 70% of elementary students and 63% of high school students were okay with what’s going on. So, you know, when I was governor I would have died for a 63 or 70% approval rating, and I suspect members of Congress would, too.

Rep. Davis: I wouldn’t die, but I would be very excited for that approval rating.

And in his prepared remarks, Sec. Vilsack noted that, “SNAP helps millions of hardworking families put healthy food on the table as they get back on their feet. More than half of SNAP recipients are children and the elderly, and less than 7% of households receive cash assistance. Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work – and more than 80 percent work in the year before or after receiving SNAP. With a stronger economy SNAP participation is beginning to gradually decline. Comparing Fiscal Year 2014 with Fiscal Year 2013, average participation decreased 2.3 percent or by approximately 1.1 million people. While the economic trends are encouraging, SNAP remains critical to millions of Americans.”

Sec. Vilsack indicated that, “The Farm Bill provided $200 million for SNAP employment and training pilots to help participants find jobs and increase their earnings…[and]…The new Farm Bill builds on USDA’s ongoing efforts to root out any waste, fraud, and abuse from the program, protect the taxpayer investment in SNAP and make sure that the program is there for those who truly need it. In FY2013, SNAP achieved a record level of payment accuracy of 96.8 percent. Payment errors in FY2013 were almost 64 percent lower than they were in FY 2000, among the lowest in the federal government. USDA efforts have also resulted in a significant reduction in trafficking – USDA’s The Extent of Trafficking in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: 2009-2011 study shows that the exchange of SNAP benefits for cash – which was estimated to be as high as 4 percent 15 years ago, down to just 1.3 percent according to the most recent data.”