Congress pushes back on healthier school lunches

By MARY CLARE JALONICK , Associated Press
FILE - In this Sept. 14, 2011 file photo, fresh fries are scooped into containers during lunch at Gardiner High School in Gardiner, Maine. Congress wants to keep pizza and french fries on school lunch lines, fighting back against an Obama administration proposal to make school lunches healthier. The final version of a spending bill released late Monday would unravel school lunch standards the Agriculture Department proposed earlier this year, which included limiting the use of potatoes on the lunch line and delaying limits on sodium and delaying a requirement to boost whole grains. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)

(AP) -- Who needs leafy greens and carrots when pizza and french fries will do?

In an effort many 9-year-olds will cheer, Congress wants pizza and french fries to stay on school lunch lines and is fighting the Obama administration's efforts to take out of schools.

The final version of a spending bill released late Monday would unravel school lunch standards the Agriculture Department proposed earlier this year. These include limiting the use of potatoes on the lunch line, putting new restrictions on sodium and boosting the use of whole grains. The legislation would block or delay all of those efforts.

The bill also would allow tomato paste on pizzas to be counted as a vegetable, as it is now. USDA had wanted to only count a half-cup of tomato paste or more as a vegetable, and a serving of pizza has less than that.

Nutritionists say the whole effort is reminiscent of the Reagan administration's much-ridiculed attempt 30 years ago to classify ketchup as a vegetable to cut costs. This time around, food companies that produce frozen pizzas for schools, the salt industry and potato growers requested the changes and lobbied Congress.

that are subsidized by the federal government must include a certain amount of vegetables, and USDA's proposal could have pushed pizza-makers and potato growers out of the school lunch business.

Piling on to the companies' opposition, some conservatives argue that the federal government shouldn't tell children what to eat. In a summary of the bill, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee said the changes would "prevent overly burdensome and costly regulations and ...provide greater flexibility for local school districts to improve the of meals."

School districts have said some of the USDA proposals go too far and cost too much when budgets are extremely tight. Schools have long taken broad instructions from the government on what they can serve in the federally subsidized meals that are given free or at reduced price to low-income children. But some schools have balked at government attempts to tell them exactly what foods they can't serve.

Reacting to that criticism, House Republicans had urged USDA to rewrite the standards in a bill passed in June. The Senate last month voted to block the potato limits in its version, with opposition to the restrictions led by potato-growing states. Neither version of the bill included the latest provisions on tomato paste, sodium or whole grains; House and Senate negotiators added those in the last two weeks as they put finishing touches on the legislation.

The school lunch proposal is based on 2009 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said they are necessary to reduce childhood obesity and future health care costs.

USDA spokeswoman Courtney Rowe said Tuesday that the department will continue its efforts to make lunches healthier.

"While it's unfortunate that some members of Congress continue to put special interests ahead of the health of America's children, USDA remains committed to practical, science-based standards for school meals," she said in a statement.

Nutrition advocate Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said Congress's proposed changes will keep schools from serving a wider array of vegetables. Children already get enough pizza and potatoes, she says. It also would slow efforts to make pizzas - a longtime standby on school lunch lines - healthier, with whole grain crusts and lower sodium levels.

"They are making sure that two of the biggest problems in the school lunch program, pizza and french fries, are untouched," she said.

A group of retired generals advocating for healthier school lunches also criticized the spending bill. The group, called Mission: Readiness, has called poor nutrition in school lunches a national security issue because obesity is the leading medical disqualifier for military service.

"We are outraged that Congress is seriously considering language that would effectively categorize pizza as a vegetable in the school lunch program," Amy Dawson Taggart, the director of the group, said in a letter to lawmakers before the final bill was released. "It doesn't take an advanced degree in nutrition to call this a national disgrace."

Specifically, the bill would:

- Block the from limiting starchy vegetables, including corn and peas, to two servings a week. The rule was intended to cut down on , which many schools serve daily.

- Allow USDA to count two tablespoons of tomato paste as a vegetable, as it does now. The department had attempted to require that only a half-cup of tomato paste could be considered a vegetable. Federally subsidized lunches must have a certain number of vegetables to be served.

- Require further study on long-term sodium reduction requirements set forth by the USDA guidelines.

- Require USDA to define "whole grains" before they regulate them. The USDA rules require schools to use more .

who have fought the USDA standards say they were too strict and neglected the nutrients that potatoes, other starchy vegetables and tomato paste do offer.

"This agreement ensures that nutrient-rich vegetables such as potatoes, corn and peas will remain part of a balanced, healthy diet in federally funded school meals and recognizes the significant amounts of potassium, fiber and vitamins A and C provided by tomato paste, ensuring that students may continue to enjoy healthy meals such as pizza and pasta," said Kraig Naasz, president of the American Frozen Food Institute.

The provisions are part of a final House-Senate compromise on a $182 billion measure that would fund the day-to-day operations of the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. Both the House and the Senate are expected to vote on the bill this week and send it to President Barack Obama.

5 /5 (1 vote)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Obama: Nutrition bill vital to children's future

Dec 13, 2010

(AP) -- Thousands more children would get into school-based meal programs and those lunches and dinners would become more nutritious under a bill President Barack Obama signed into law Monday, part of an administration-wide ...

Kids reject healthy school meals

Jun 08, 2006

Students in Scotland appear to prefer lunch from home rather than the new healthier menus being offered at school.

Recommended for you

Study examines effect of hospital switch to for-profit status

12 hours ago

Hospital conversion from nonprofit to for-profit status in the 2000s was associated with better subsequent financial health but had no relationship to the quality of care delivered, mortality rates, or the proportion of poor ...

Hospital acquisitions leading to increased patient costs

12 hours ago

The trend of hospitals consolidating medical groups and physician practices in an effort to improve the coordination of patient care is backfiring and increasing the cost of patient care, according to a new study led by the ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Shootist
not rated yet Nov 15, 2011
No. Congress hasn't "pushed back" on healthier scrool lunches. Congress correctly noted that it isn't Washington's place to dictate to the rest of the Nation how to feed their children. That is why we have 50 states. That is why those 50 states are divided into Counties and Parishes. Most decisions, all internal decisions, are better made as close to the People as possible.

Damn, but I hate those who support Washington Dictates. Are you all idiots, or just corrupt? Move to NK or Cuba if you love your centralized gob'mint so much.
Nerdyguy
not rated yet Nov 15, 2011
No. Congress hasn't "pushed back" on healthier scrool lunches. Congress correctly noted that it isn't Washington's place to dictate to the rest of the Nation how to feed their children. That is why we have 50 states. That is why those 50 states are divided into Counties and Parishes. Most decisions, all internal decisions, are better made as close to the People as possible...


Agreed. Do we really need the federal government telling every state and local government in the U.S. how to feed their kids? Remember, we already have government agencies, programs, and plans in place in EVERY locality to handle this.

For people not from the U.S., education is under the purview of the States, with a few exceptions, like some of the laws passed in recent decades (e.g., No Child Left Behind).

I'd rather see the federal government working towards balancing the budget, fixing the national economy, etc. vs. duplicating the efforts of every State decision.

that_guy
not rated yet Nov 16, 2011
Actually the federal government and FDA has had quite a bit of say in school lunches since the Federal government pushed to have compulsory public education in the first place. The federal govenment funds a large portion of school budgets and lunches.

We wouldn't have any public education or school lunches in many states if the fed govt had not stepped in. (mississippi anyone?)

And I do believe there should be some minimum standard set so that kids get food that meets their nutritional needs and doesn't kill them.

That said, I do agree with you guys that the minutae of this situation is ridiculous, and really, making school lunches healthier than they already are wouldn't make a lot of difference. The worst food that children get is not from schools.