Pizza would be continue to be considered a vegetable on school lunch trays under new changes to school meals proposed by Congress late yesterday. And lawmakers who wanted no limits on how many starchy vegetables students are served also got their wish.
Collectively, child nutrition advocates say, the changes amount to Congress bending to the whims of food manufacturers and growers at the expense of children’s health.
“At a time when child nutrition and childhood obesity are national health concerns, Congress should be supporting the U.S. Department of Agriculture and school efforts to serve healthier school meals, not undermining them,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Together the school lunch riders in the agriculture spending bill will protect industry’s ability to keep pizza and French fries on school lunch trays.”
The Agriculture Appropriations bill approved by a conference committee of House and Senate members yesterday would also make other changes to rules about what’s served on school lunch trays, even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture is still in the midst of making rules about those meals.
One of the big changes would, in essence, continue to allow pizza with tomato sauce to be considered a vegetable. That’s allowed under the bill because of a change to how schools would be able to count the amount of tomato puree or paste in a dish. Boiled down, the USDA can’t spend any money on counting tomato paste the way it proposed to in a rule offered for comment earlier this year. The USDA way would have kept pizza slices from counting as veggies unless they had about 1/2 cup of tomato paste (with a half-cup of any veggie counting as a serving), Food companies said that meant the pizza could become inedible, though simply adding other vegetables per slice could also resolve the issue.
“It is not that a whole-grain, moderate-in-fat-and-sodium pizza can’t be a healthy food. It just isn’t a vegetable,” Ms. Wootan said.
The bill also wouldn’t allow the agency to spend money on reducing sodium in school meals beyond what the USDA proposed for the first four years after the rules are in place. School lunches—which have been cited for being high in sodium, accounting for as much as half a student’s sodium allowance for a full day—would have had to become drastically less salty over 10 years. Another change chips away at the USDA proposal on whole grains.
These changes are in addition to others that prevent the USDA from limiting the amount of white potatoes, corn, lima beans, and green peas served on school lunch trays. Senators from several potato-growing states worked that into the bill before it went to the House and the change stuck.
It was just last year that Congress authorized the USDA to make changes to school meals with passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The agency proposed changes in January and by April, had received more than 130,000 comments on its proposal, comments that would likely have affected final rules that were expected to be issued later this year.
But if the spending bill, with these changes that preempt the USDA’s action, is approved by both the Senate and House, it is expected to make its way to President Barack Obama’s desk within a week.
Photo: Fries are scooped into containers during lunch at Gardiner High School in Gardiner, Maine. 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. (Pat Wellenbach/AP)