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Who Should Decide What Goes in School Lunches?

Aired May 29, 2014 - 18:28   ET


NEWT GINGRICH, CO-HOST: Wolf, we're debating Washington's latest attempt to impose rigid uniformity on every aspect of our lives. In today's case, school lunches.

STEPHANIE CUTTER, CO-HOST: When you hear Republicans talking like that, you know that there is an ulterior motive. Actually, they want to kill the entire school lunch program. The debate starts right now.


ANNOUNCER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, Michelle Obama takes on congressional Republicans.

MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: Parents have a right to expect their kids will get decent food in our schools.

ANNOUNCER: A war of words in the war on fat.

On the left, Stephanie Cutter. On the right, Newt Gingrich. In the CROSSFIRE, Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Genevieve Wood of the Heritage Foundation.

Who should decide what's in your child's lunch? Science or the food industry? Tonight, on CROSSFIRE.


GINGRICH: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. I'm Newt Gingrich on the right.

CUTTER: And I'm Stephanie Cutter on the left.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, guests who disagree on what our kids should eat at school.

The first lady summed up the argument today when she said, and I quote, "As parents we always put our children's interests first. Our leaders in Washington should do the same."

Yes, they should. But they aren't. In 2010, at the urging of Michelle Obama, Congress passed higher nutritional standards for school lunches. Based on science, if kids eat healthier, they'll do better in school.

Ninety percent of schools are already doing this. They're already implementing these standards, but 10 percent are dragging their feet. And today House Republicans are using ridiculous nanny state excuse to undo the standards. We're spending $11 billion a year of taxpayer dollars on school lunches. Let's not spend it on junk. That leads to higher rates of obesity and higher health-care costs.

I'm a new mom, but I don't think you need years of parenting experience to know what the House Republicans are doing is just wrong.

And Newt, it has nothing to do with a year delay in these nutrition standards. They are trying to undo the standards all together and undo the school lunch program.

GINGRICH: I can also claim to be a parent and grandparent. I'm in this whole thing here.

CUTTER: You have much more experience than I do.

GINGRICH: And my only point -- what I want to start with is this whole notion, people should actually read the language. I've never seen this much hysteria over a very narrow amendment. We'll get to that.

In the CROSSFIRE, Margo Wootan, a nutrition advocate, and Genevieve Wood of the Heritage Foundation.

Margo, let me start.


GINGRICH: I know you're an expert in this area. It says only a district that verifies a net loss from operating a food service program for a period of at least six months can apply. And what they're applying for is a one-year delay. And yet the hysteria on the left is as though this was a bill to eliminate the school lunch program.

WOOTAN: Well, they've been talking about this as providing very narrow flexibilities on issues like salt and whole grains, but it's not. This would allow schools to opt out of all the school nutrition standards for a year. This would take us back in time to the days when schools were selling unhealthy foods. This would allow junk food back into the school lunch program.

GINGRICH: So -- but wait. All it says is...

WOOTAN: I've read it.

GINGRICH: All it says is that the Department of Agriculture could waive for one year.

WOOTAN: All the nutrition...

You're suggesting that this is sort of the classic conservative liberal problem in America. You're suggesting that there are school districts in America that dislike their children so much that they are so eager to get those children junk food that they're going to use this loophole to do vicious things to their own children?

WOOTAN: You know, actually, Newt, there is evidence to show that, before these school nutrition standards went into effect, less than 15 percent of schools were serving healthy school lunches. Now under the new standards, 90 percent are, so the standards are working. Why roll them back?

CUTTER: We're talking about a very small number of schools are having problems. Most schools are -- that's not true. You're punishing 90 percent of the kids for a very small problem.

But Genevieve, I have a question for you. This program, the school lunch program, serves 30 million kids, most of whom are from needy families, some of -- most of whom this is their biggest meal of the day. We're spending more than $11 billion on this program. Why wouldn't we want the most nutritious foods to be served to these kids?

GENEVIEVE WOOD, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: Well, I think that we do, but I would, of course, ask why the Obama administration, who gives out a lot more money in Food Stamps to...

CUTTER: We're talking about the school lunch program.

WOOD: I understand. But that's government-sponsored, and we let people buy into...

CUTTER: Do you believe there should be any -- should any...

WOOD: No, I don't think there ought to be regulations on that. Let me explain.

CUTTER: School lunches should have no standards whatsoever?

WOOD: No, you can have standards, which they do. And as Newt Gingrich has politely pointed out, this isn't about the standards. It's about implementing them. And can schools actually do it?

You said 90 percent are doing it. That's right. And they're finding out that it's costing a lot more money than they have in their budgets to do this. You have some schools...

CUTTER: ... saving money because they're getting higher participation.

WOOD: No, you do not have higher participation.

CUTTER: You actually do.

WOOD: You actually had a -- over a million students drop out of the school lunch program last year, which after decades of us actually having students increase in the program...

WOOTAN: No, that's not true.

WOOD: Let me finish. You had over a million drop off because they don't like the food and if we really start... WOOTAN: Going down since 2007. This decrease in participation is of concern, and it's something that we've been focused on. But it's been going down since 2007.

GINGRICH: Why do you think it's happening?

WOOTAN: It's a mix of things. I think it's kids bringing their lunch from home, because the food wasn't healthy. And a lot of parents opted out of the school lunch program, because they didn't think the food was healthy enough. And many of them don't know about these changes...

WOOD: Margo, it's wrong to say -- it's wrong to say...

WOOTAN: ... that have been taking place and that the food has been getting better.

WOOD: In the first full year of implementation last year, that's when you lost a million kids. So they were dropping out because they did not like...

WOOTAN: It's been going down -- it's been going down.

WOOD: Well, you're not -- I don't think you have the facts right. The fact is they don't like the food.

WOOTAN: That's not true.

WOOD: Secondly, they can't -- schools cannot -- they're saying, "We can't afford this." Some schools are actually taking money out of their teaching budgets to make up the difference here.

And let's be clear. What are our schools' No. 1 priority? It's teaching kids how to read, how to do math. They're already failing in that category. So now Michelle Obama thinks we need to come in and tell everybody how to eat.

CUTTER: OK. But let me get clear on this. Do you believe there should be any nutritional standards in our school lunch program?

WOOD: We have nutritional standards. Let's have them.

CUTTER: Do you think they should be upgraded?

WOOD: Let's have them, but I don't know that the federal government is the one who ought to do the setting them. How about...

CUTTER: Who should? Who should?

WOOD: How about the national -- the School Nutritional Association that says they're wanting this delay because they want...

CUTTER: How do you enforce standards?

WOOD: What do you mean how do you enforce? So if I lived in Massachusetts and my standards aren't as good as in Georgia, then you do -- you go to your school board and you say, "Mr. School Board and Mrs. School Board, we would like you to make changes here."

CUTTER: For the $11 billion we're spending on this program, we think that schools should just decide amongst themselves what they should serve?

WOOD: I think schools -- I think people at the local district, I think the National School Board Association, who has asked for the waiver, the School Nutrition Association has asked for the waiver on this, know more about -- the nutrition group knows more than the parents, knows more than the White House does.

WOOTAN: This is not a local program. This is the national school lunch program.

CUTTER: Exactly.

WOOTAN: States and localities kick in less than 10 percent of the money. These are federal dollars for a federal nutrition program. If we're going to spend all these billions of dollars...


WOOD: They're saying, the schools are saying the money coming from the federal government is not enough to do what the federal government is asking them to do.

CUTTER: I'm sure you know where this program started. Harry Truman started the school lunch program, because too many of our young people were being rejected from the military because of malnutrition. And if there is a supporter bigger than the U.S. military for this program right now, I don't know who it is. We need to get healthy meals in their schools.

WOOD: I understand that. But why on earth, where you're giving $80 billion a year in Food Stamps and you have parents buying food for their children, and they're buying...

WOOTAN: This is not Food Stamps.

WOOD: Those are federal dollars -- guys, you are talking about -- we're talking about federal dollars...


CUTTER: We're talking about school lunches.

WOOD: Federal dollars for food. Right? That's what we're talking about.

GINGRICH: Let's talk about the program from this standpoint. This is part of why the country is increasingly, I think, opposed to the federal government.

These things are all implemented locally. They are local people hired in a local cafeteria run by a local...

WOOTAN: With federal money.

GINGRICH: ... with federal money -- but I'm just saying, so if somebody locally, and it's the school nutrition people who came back and asked for this waiver. And they said, we have enough problems of implementation locally.

People in Washington say, "Oh, we know better."

Now, you know, we just asked the question the other day, should government play a significant role in reducing obesity? The country overwhelmingly is concerned about obesity. Eighty-one percent say they're concerned. But by 54-42, the country said, no, the federal government shouldn't.

And I think the reason is just you're living through the Veterans Administration meltdown. You're living through the failure to control the border. You're living through Obamacare. You're living through the IRS having all sorts of problems. And people look up and say this is another federal intervention that is clumsy.

WOOTAN: It's working.

GINGRICH: But it is...

WOOTAN: It's working great.

GINGRICH: Why does it -- why can't you say...

CUTTER: ... existing program.

GINGRICH: ... ninety percent. Why can't you say...

WOOTAN: I do accept 90 percent. And so that 10 percent, the answer to the struggles that a couple of schools, a handful of schools are having on a few standards is not to feed unhealthy food to our kids. It's to help those schools do better. To give them technical assistance and training so that they can do...

WOOD: You guys are not -- you're not putting the real numbers out there. There was a government accountability study that looked at this.

WOOTAN: Which I've read. And it doesn't say that.

WOOD: It said 48 states said they were having trouble, their schools were having trouble.

GINGRICH: OK. We have to go to a break. But I would just suggest, for the average American to be told that the federal government is not going to help you fix the problem the federal government gave you...

WOOD: It's happening every single day in our schools.

GINGRICH: Next, I want to share with you what the government sees as the latest threat to the nation's health. The potato. But first, today's "CROSSFIRE Quiz." How much did the government spend on Food Stamps last year? Is it $20 billion, $50 billion, or $80 billion? We'll have the answer when we get back.


GINGRICH: Welcome back.

Today, House Republicans beat back a Democratic attempt to enforce rigid government standards for the food schools served to students. It's yet another example of massive government intervention which almost always backfires.

Here are some more examples: a couple years ago, New York City discovered 20 percent of the students in its breakfast in the classroom program were eating two breakfasts. One at home then another at school. The excess calories were making them fat.

A recent study shows consumption of school lunches is the strongest single predictor of childhood obesity, and a long-term study found young girls on food stamps are 43 percent more likely to be overweight -- which brings us to the answer to our CROSSFIRE quiz. The government spent almost $80 billion in food stamps last year, a record.

Margo Wootan and Genevieve Wood are here with us.

And I was excited getting to you because just before the break, I held up my potato, which is actually the WIC program, another government food program.

But here's what (INAUDIBLE), the government has now decided that people, women should not be allowed to buy white potatoes under the WIC program because people buy white potatoes, OK? Just with us (ph) in a free society. Since you already buy white potatoes because you really like them, you can't buy white potatoes with this money because we decided you shouldn't buy the thing you like.

My question for you is this -- this is -- I think this is fully as legitimate as Stephanie's belief that Republicans are going to abolish the school lunch program on Tuesday. Fact is, people can say, so let's say, next year, the government decides we should all be vegetarians. Or the government decides in two years that no one should eat beef or that butter is now bad.

So, at what point does the nanny state become so absurdly opposed to popular culture that you have to back up a long step and say, wait a second, do I really want you in my life on every front?

MARGO WOOTAN, NUTRITION ADVOCATE: We're not trying to get in your life on every front. We're not going into your refrigerator. We're not telling you what to buy.

The WIC food program is called the supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children. The goal of that program is to provide foods and nutrients that are lacking in low-income women and children's diets.

And so, it's not like food stamps where it just gives family resources to buy whatever food they want. There's a list of foods that are part of the WIC food package and those foods are designed to meet specific nutrient deficiencies that are common in low income --


STEPHANIE CUTTER, CO-HOST: You mean this is not a nutrition deficiency? Is that the point?

WOOTAN: It turns out that the potato industry is --

CUTTER: Doing just fine and plenty of women ate them.

WOOTAN: And people are buying potatoes. So, nobody's saying potatoes are bad. What they're saying this is a supplemental food package to fill your --

GINGRICH: You are saying, in that program, you can't buy it.


CUTTER: That's right.

Because they're already getting access to it.

WOOTAN: The design is to fill nutritional gaps. There's no gap in potatoes so there's no need to provide extra money to people to buy potatoes.

GINGRICH: Part of the country's reaction I think to what's going on in Washington, this has been a growing feeling for at least 30 years is the elites have decided they will now tell us what they have decided, their experts have told them we should do and who we should be and how we should do it.

WOOTAN: That's not the case. So the school lunch program, we're spending all this money, we're providing it to schools to serve a healthy lunch to kids. We need to say what a healthy lunch is.

So, there are standards. If you're going have a nutrition program, you should have nutritious food --


GENEVIEVE WOOD, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: But why -- why don't we let the nutritionists at the state level and local level go to the school as I'm sure you did?

We don't think the nutritionists in Georgia and New York and places don't know what good nutrition is?

WOOTAN: If it was a local program --

WOOD: Only Michelle Obama apparently knows what good nutrition is. WOOTAN: Michelle Obama did not set the nutrition standards.

WOOD: I understand that.

WOOTAN: She's not a nutritionist and understands that.

WOOD: We have the nutrition association saying we need time to implement it better.

WOOTAN: They supported the law that requires --

WOOD: They are asking for time and you're saying no --


CUTTER: Look, guys -- Genevieve, I want to ask you a question.


WOOD: -- anything, education, health care, now apparently even what we can eat.


CUTTER: Here's a question for you. A study that newt cited about the best indicator of childhood obesity is school lunch programs. What that study was actually talking about is the old standards, not the current standards. And it cites actually the new standards are the best solution to childhood obesity in our school system.

And I talked to a couple of nutrition officials today at the local level, which you should appreciate, one of them, Donna Martin, in Burke, Georgia, which has a very high rate of poverty, 100 percent of her kids are on the school lunch program.

Since these standards have gone into place, and this is according to Donna Martin, her test scores are up. Graduation rates are up.

WOOD: That's wonderful.

CUTTER: Their football team that was diagnosed by the CDC with malnutrition has gone on to win the state championship.

WOOD: Wonderful.

CUTTER: So that is an example of it's working. And she credits these nutritional standards. You know why?


CUTTER: It's based on science. They're based on sound science.

WOOD: Hold on, I know you guys want to toss science around as though the rest of us don't believe in science and good nutrition. That's just not true. But number one, nobody is saying to that school they've got to change. The question is, if it's working for them, let them do it. But if there's another school that's saying we are having to take money away from our teaching, our football team, whatever happens, then we need to find --


CUTTER: The same study led to childhood obesity.

WOOD: You want to say because it works here, it will have to work in these 100 other places. And it doesn't work that way.

And, Stephanie, you know that. Come on.

WOOTAN: These are nutrition standards that outline food groups and nutrients that things should be.

WOOD: And nobody is changing that.

WOOTAN: The local district implements those and decides which foods to offer.

GINGRICH: The local school district --

CUTTER: Is that choice? Is that called choice? If figuring out what exactly to offer based on nutritional standards? That sounds like choice to me.

WOOTAN: Schools have a choice whether to take the federal money or not.

WOOD: That's right.



WOOTAN: If they choose not to take the money, they can --

WOOD: This is like Obamacare all over again. You guys need to expand your Medicaid roles and we'll give you money to do it. But if you don't do it our way, we're not going to give you the money.

Come on, that's called blackmail from Washington. You did it in Obamacare and now you're doing it here.


WOOTAN: If you need a million dollars, then you have to meet some nutrition standards.

WOOD: Come on, guys.

WOOTAN: Those parents want their kids to have healthy food. GINGRICH: So, you're saying that some of the poorest districts in America who are the ones that have this problem. Remember, the 90 percent --

WOOTAN: The 90 percent is not -- a lot of those are poor districts.


WOOTAN: That are doing well.

GINGRICH: There are also districts that are saying this is costing us a lot of extra money. I think, I guess what gets to a lot of us is, the arrogance of Washington saying, no, no, we've never visited your town. We have no idea.

WOOTAN: We have visited your town.

WOOD: Come on. You haven't visited all these places.

WOOTAN: USDA has been going around and visiting schools all around the country. And they are offering flexibility. You know, not one school has been fined over these new nutrition standards. When a school is struggling, they provide them --

WOOD: Then, why are so many schools complaining?


CUTTER: We're going to have to take break.

GINGRICH: They don't enforce.

WOOD: No, they don't get rid of the standards.

CUTTER: Everyone, stay here. We want you at home to weigh in on today's "Fireback" question. Should government require healthier school lunches? Tweet yes or no, #crossfire. We'll have the results after the break.

We also will have the outrages of the day, including an outrage claim by a thin-skinned movie star. You can guess who.


CUTTER: Welcome back.

Now, it's time for the outrages of the day.

I'm outraged about something Gwyneth Paltrow said. In a recent interview, the actress complained, quote, "You come across online comments about yourself and your friends and it's a very dehumanizing thing. It's almost like how, in war, you go through this bloody, dehumanizing thing."

Sorry, no. I've read plenty of nasty things about myself online. And, you know, those viewers out there, you know who you are, and I don't like it, but it comes with the territory. And while I haven't been to war, I have plenty of people in my life who have. And I think it's quite a bit harder, more dangerous, requires more sacrifice than reading mean comments written by an anonymous online posters.

So, Gwyneth, please stop talking. Instead, go to a hospital and visit wounded troops. Then you'll understand what really -- what war really means.

GINGRICH: It's an amazing comment on her part.

You know, here at home, incompetent politicians with incompetent bureaucracies always need more money. Welcome to Washington, D.C., where the city council just took taxation to new heights of absurdity. If you get your carpet cleaned, you'll pay a new tax. If you go to the car wash (AUDIO GAP). There's a new tax on bottled water if you have it delivered. Yoga studios and gym membership news carry a new tax. So in D.C., you can't be clean, healthy, or thirsty without being taxed.

Apparently, D.C. politicians have decided they're in competition with New York City to be the capital of the nanny state. But there will probably be a tax on that, too.

CUTTER: Let's check on our "Fireback" results. Should government require healthier school lunches? Right now, 72 percent of you say yes, 28 percent say no.

I'm going to put it back to you two, for I'm sure will be a very rigorous debate on the results of that.

WOOTAN: Well, actually, that's very similar to national polls that show the overwhelming majority of parents want healthier food in schools.

WOOD: Of course, who doesn't want the kids to eat healthier? And we want the school lunches to be healthier. Of course we do. The question is, how do you go about it? And are you taking away in some cases as apparently we are what the school's core function is education and funneling programs that they can't afford into this?

I think we ought to be giving schools a year to figure it out. That's the least we can do.

GINGRICH: I think it's interesting difference. I think if you asked the question should struggling districts have some flexibility to meet federal standard, you would have gotten an almost equally large number. So, we'll try that out one night.

CUTTER: I'm not surprised by the results myself.

Thanks to Margo Wootan and Genevieve Wood. The debate continues online at, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

From the left, I'm Stephanie Cutter.

GINGRICH: From the right, I'm Newt Gingrich. Join us next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.