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When the U.S. Department of Agriculture decides by the end of the year what school meals should look like, the agency will not be able to make all the changes it proposed in January, including placing limits on one food linked to obesity.
Congress last month added clauses to the agriculture appropriations bill that keep the USDA from limiting how many servings of starchy vegetables, including white potatoes, students are allowed each week. Other provisions in the bill, signed by President Barack Obama on Nov. 18, allow a small amount of tomato paste on a slice of pizza to be considered a serving of vegetables, cut back on some of the limits the USDA wanted to place on the sodium content of school meals, and require the agency to define what items are considered whole grains.
Although the Obama administration, and particularly first lady Michelle Obama, has emphasized healthier eating and more exercise for American schoolchildren, the provisions on school meals were built into a large bill that finances the USDA and several other federal agencies for fiscal 2012 and keeps the federal government running through Dec. 16.
Congress authorized the USDA to rewrite school-meal rules in the first place with last year’s passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The agency is still on track to unveil final rules for breakfast and lunch before the end of the year, and those rules are set to take effect next school year. But a spokeswoman for the USDA said the end product will be less ambitious because Congress bowed to food companies and specific industries instead of listening to experts on health and nutrition.
“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,” the spokeswoman, Courtney Rowe, said.
The USDA’s proposal, based on recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, an independent group that advises federal policymakers, called for limiting starchy vegetables—specifically corn, lima beans, white potatoes, and peas—to one cup per week. The institute called for limits on those vegetables in part because nearly a third of the vegetables children consume are potatoes, and most of those are in the form of chips or fries. A half-cup is considered a serving of fruit or vegetables, so the rule would have limited potatoes and other starches to two appearances per week at lunch and none at breakfast.
Potato growers insisted that spuds, with fiber and potassium, are nutritious, especially when served in forms other than fries. And because they are cheap, school cafeterias can serve them while accommodating other changes proposed by the USDA that could be costly, including adding more green and orange vegetables to students’ plates, although the proposal also provides ways for schools to cover many of those costs.
“This is an important step for the school districts, parents, and taxpayers who would shoulder the burden of USDA’s proposed $6.8 billion school-meal regulation that will not increase the delivery of key nutrients,” said John Keeling, the executive vice president and chief executive officer of the National Potato Council, in Washington.
Two senators, Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Democrat Mark Udall of Colorado, worked that provision into the bill when it was discussed in the Senate in November. Both senators come from potato-growing states.
In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine this year, however, potato chips and potatoes in general were linked to long-term weight gain.
‘Opening the Floodgates’
The move by Sens. Collins and Udall appeared to open the door to other changes, influenced by food companies, as the bill worked its way through Congress.
“We worried about potato amendments opening the floodgates, and that seems to be happening,” said Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group in Washington.
Another USDA-proposed change would have eliminated a special provision that allows one-eighth of a cup of tomato paste to count as a half-cup serving of vegetables. It’s the only vegetable or fruit puree or paste that is allowed to be counted that way, and the provision allows a slice of pizza to count as a serving of vegetables, in addition to a serving of grains and other categories.
In terms of nutrients, the quantity of tomato paste is similar to other fruits and vegetables because it is concentrated, but counting a pizza slice that way allows schools to forgo at least one additional vegetable on a lunch tray.
The move drew applause from the frozen-food industry, which supplies millions of pizzas to schools.
“Absent congressional oversight, USDA’s currently proposed school-meal standards would ... restrict schools’ utilization of tomato paste,” the American Frozen Food Institute, of McLean, Va., said in a statement. Congress’ action “recognizes the significant amounts of potassium, fiber, and vitamins A and C provided by tomato paste and ensures students may continue to enjoy healthy meals such as pizza and pasta.”
But the move incensed nutrition experts and some lawmakers.
“When we’re talking about taxpayer subsidies for healthy vegetables, [it’s] to make sure they’re available for kids on the side of pizza,” said Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo. “Pizza alone—particularly pizza with no vegetables on it—it doesn’t make sense.”
Ms. Wootan said technical decisions about children’s nutrition are best left to experts, rather than lawmakers.
“Why is Congress working to keep more pizza and french fries on lunch trays?” she said.
Other changes inserted by Congress could also benefit processed-food companies. Many processed and frozen foods are high in sodium, and studies have found that some school meals contain as much as half a student’s recommended daily intake of sodium.
Limits on Salt
The USDA had proposed reducing the permissible amount of sodium over 10 years, with two-, four-, and 10-year targets for cutting it. For example, a high school lunch four years after the rules were adopted could contain no more than 1,080 milligrams of sodium under the original proposal.
But Congress rewrote the rules. It eliminated the USDA’s authority to limit salt beyond the two-year targets before reviewing and evaluating the science on sodium and certifying that lower sodium targets are supported by that science.
A group of retired generals weighed in on the debate as well. The group, called Mission: Readiness, reminded Congress that it was the military that triggered the creation of the National School Lunch Program after World War II because soldiers were arriving for training malnourished.
“Given that the USDA has spent the past year finalizing science-based standards to limit salt, unhealthy fats, and calories and include more nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits, and whole grains as part of school cafeteria menus, you’d think we’d be off to the races and kids would soon be eating much healthier food at school. Instead, we appear to be reliving the past battles over ketchup as a vegetable.”
Many critics drew comparisons between Congress’ recent actions and a Reagan administration proposal in the 1980s to count ketchup as a serving of vegetables. The proposal was quickly killed and widely criticized, including by the late Republican Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania, whose family is synonymous with the condiment.
The final change inserted by Congress requires the USDA to define whole grains more explicitly in its meal regulations before requiring that at least half of grains served are whole-grain rich, meaning they contain 51 percent whole grains.
Jessica Donze Black, the project director for the Pew Health Group’s School Foods Project, in Washington, said the changes Congress inserted in school-meal regulations will have a ripple effect.
“Science tells us that kids who eat well aren’t just healthier; they also perform better at school,” she said. “Ultimately, that affects all of us, benefiting our economy while reducing health-care costs.”
Ms. Donze Black urged the USDA to find a way to push its proposals.
“Despite Congress’ action,” she said, “we hope the agency will move forward with a final standard for school meals based on science.”
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the December 07, 2011 edition of Education Week as Congress Thwarts Plans to Shape Up School Meals