School lunches become a billion-dollar battlefield

(CBS News) School lunches have become a billion dollar battlefield. On one side there are those pushing for changes in the way millions of kids eat. On the other is an industry that has had a long and successful run inside lunchrooms.

For a high school project, 16-year old juniors Michael Benson and his friend Ivan Alston investigated school lunches and made a video. Finding the food's nutritional value wasn't easy.

"The cafeteria people didn't want to tell us what it was. And we just never got a straight answer from really anyone," Benson said.

In discussing one serving of protein, the video says "it's more like a mystery meat. We don't know what they're putting in it."

It turns out that it was a fortified beef-soy mixture. And the popular "pizza puff" has about as the same calories, fat and sodium as a Big Mac.

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Under an initiative backed by the First Lady, USDA is making the first radical changes to school lunches in 15 years. It requires fruits and vegetables every day, only low-fat milk, more whole grain, and less fat.

Kevin Concannon, who oversees the school lunch program at USDA, said: "The industry, I think, had a lot of anxiety about this. That's the kindest thing I can say about that."

The food industry had a full menu of objections: "salt and sodium have important functional properties"; "...transfat should not be inadvertently discouraged" and; limiting starches like potatoes would make lunch "unappealing and confusing."

Only John Keeling with the $3 billion per year potato industry agreed to talk with us on camera.

"Sure French fries are good for kids, you know, like any other food in moderation," Keeling said.

In the end, the food industry convinced Congress to rein in USDA's plan to limit French fries and salt. Kids still get to buy sugar-flavored milk, and pizza still counts as a vegetable because of the tomato paste.

"It's not a vegetable, but in the world of public policy, sometimes influence industry influences and injects itself into it. That's what happened here," Concannon said.

Michael Benson and Ivan Alston had their own influence. The school agreed to post nutrition data and they can't wait to see what's on the menu this fall.

  • Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.

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