Uncle Sam’s overreach is so great that his fingers are in your local salad bar, according to U.S. Rep. Dave Brat, R-7th.
During a podcast interview on TheBlaze, a news network founded by conservative commentator Glenn Beck, Brat said Washington should cede control over many of its programs to state and local governments. And he called for the crumbling of some federal pillars.
"The Department of Education for starters, right?" Brat said on June 29. "A few weeks ago, (the) education committee in Congress is deciding what’s going to be in your local salad bar. For real. You can’t make it up."
Our thoughts went to the salad bars at local groceries and restaurants, and we wondered whether the education panel really is deciding their contents. Lettuce tell you what we found.
For starters, Brat’s statement was overly broad. Barbara Boland, the congressman’s press secretary, said Brat was referring to salad bars in schools.
Boland pointed us to a reauthorization bill, called the "Improving Child Nutrition Education Act of 2016," which would put new restrictions on a federal program that offers free breakfasts and lunches to low-income students. The measure was approved by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, by a 20-14 vote, on May 18.
Under the Republican-sponsored bill, schools would qualify for free meals for all of their students if 60 percent of their students come from low-income homes. The current threshold for school-wide free meals is 40 percent.
The bill also adds momentum to Republican efforts to give states control over free-meals programs. It would start a pilot program in which three states would be given block grants to pay for food and would be freed from some federal nutritional mandates on the meals.
The nutritional standards have been a big deal since 2010, when Congress - at the urging of first lady Michelle Obama - required free-meal schools to serve healthier food. Subsequent regulations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture established minimum weekly requirements for servings of meats, vegetables, fruits, grains and milk. They also established minimum and maximum calorie standards for each breakfast and lunch.
Many Republicans, including Brat, say the standards are burdensome on schools and have resulted in hungry students being served unappetizing meals that barely are eaten.
What about salad bars?
Many schools have found that salad bars are popular with students and a good way to satisfy vegetable requirements for children who receive free meals. Federal regulations encourage their use.
But only one sentence in the 180-page House bill addresses salad bars. It instructs the USDA to create regulations that would give free-meal schools "flexibility" in setting up and running salad bars. That’s contrary to Brat’s claim that the education committee was "deciding" what’s going to be in any salad bar - school or otherwise.
Salad bars came up for only two minutes during a five-hour debate the committee held on the bill on May 18. That occurred when Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., withdrew an amendment that would have required the USDA to draw up a plan to expand the use of salad bars in free-meal schools and offer one-time federal grants to pay for their purchase and installation.
"There is nothing in the House bill that regulates what schools can serve in their salad bars," we were told by Lorelei Disorga, vice president for the United Fresh Produce Association, a lobbying organization that monitors school lunch legislation.
We received a similar statement from Tyler Hernandez, deputy communications director of the House Education and Workforce Committee. "HR 5003 does not dictate what must be served on salad bars," he wrote in an email, referring to the bill by its congressional number.
But there’s one more thing consider. Brat’s office makes a point we noted earlier: This year’s legislation largely reauthorizes the 2010 free-meals bill that instructed the USDA to devise regulations for healthy breakfasts and lunches.
The regulations, enacted in 2012, include weekly standards for the amount of vegetables served: 3.75 cups for grades K-8; 5 cups for grades 9-12. Within those rules are a subset of minimum requirements for the types of vegetables served, identified as "dark green," "red-orange" and "beans and peas."
The USDA, in a 2013 memo, said it has received "numerous inquiries" on how free-meal schools with salad bars can make sure they’re complying with the vegetable regulations. The department recommended prepackaging salads with the proper mix, posting instructional signs by salad bar, or stationing staff at the end of the salad bar to ensure each student leaves with a federally reimbursable meal.
We finally should note that Republicans on the education committee voted 20-1 to pass this year’s reauthorization bill. Brat was the lone GOP dissenter. In a May 19 news release, Brat said the healthy-meal regulations have resulted in students being served "stomach-churning school lunches."
Boland, Brat’s press secretary, also told us in an email that the congressman is concerned by the rising cost of the free breakfast and lunch programs. The price is about $16.5 billion this year and is expected to reach $31 billion in 2025, according to projections by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Boland said Brat thinks the programs would be run more efficiently by states.
Brat said, "A few weeks ago, (the) education committee in Congress is deciding what’s going to be in your local salad bar."
The congressman misspoke. The committee never has considered what should be in the salad bars of, say, restaurants or grocery stores. Brat’s office said the congressman was referring to school salad bars.
Brat points to the committee’s May passage of a bill providing free breakfasts and lunches for students from low-income homes. The measure does not specify what vegetables should be served, and the panel spent no time haggling over amounts of lettuce, carrots and tomatoes. Setting nutritional standards would be left to the USDA.
The bill largely would reauthorize free-meals legislation passed in 2010 that prioritized serving healthy food to students. In the aftermath, the USDA established copious regulations that include minimum weekly servings of green and red-orange vegetables and legumes.
Many schools have salad bars, and it can be argued that Congress has allowed the USDA to regulate their contents. But it’s hard to imagine any salad bar worth its salt not offering a mixture of vegetables.
So Brat’s statement that the education committee is deciding salad bar contents - in schools or, perhaps, anywhere - is a stretch, and we rate it False.