Congress pushes pizza, fries in school lunches

In this Sept. 14, 2011 photo, Peter McDaniel eats some fries during lunch at Gardiner High School in Gardiner, Maine. New guidelines proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would eliminate potatoes altogether from school breakfasts and drastically reduce the amount of potatoes served in lunches. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach) Pat Wellenbach

WASHINGTON - Congress is fighting to keep pizza and french fries on school lunch lines, picking apart an Obama administration proposal to make school lunches healthier.

A spending bill released late Monday would unravel school lunch standards proposed by the Agriculture Department earlier this year, forcing USDA to pull back an attempt to limit potatoes on the lunch line, delaying limits on sodium and delaying a requirement to boost whole grains.

The spending bill also would allow tomato paste on pizzas to be counted as a vegetable, as it is now. The department's proposed guidelines would have attempted to prevent that.

The changes had been requested by food companies that produce frozen pizzas, the salt industry and potato growers. Some conservatives in Congress have called the push for healthier foods an overreach, saying the government shouldn't be telling children what to eat.

In a bill summary released Monday, 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."

House Republicans had urged USDA to completely rewrite the standards in their version of the bill passed in June. The Senate last month voted to block the potato limits in their version. Neither version included the language on tomato paste, sodium or whole grains, which was added by House-Senate negotiators on the bill.

School districts had also objected to some of the requirements, saying they go too far. Schools have long taken broad instructions from the government on what they can serve in federally subsidized meals that are served 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.

The school lunch proposal was based on 2009 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences. When the guidelines were proposed in January, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the effort was necessary to stem the tide of childhood obesity and reduce future health care costs.

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

"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. 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 members of Congress before the final plan was released. "It doesn't take an advanced degree in nutrition to call this a national disgrace."

The school lunch provisions are part of a final House-Senate compromise on a $182 billion measure 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.

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