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 unhealthy foods 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.
School meals 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 nutritional quality 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.
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