Healthier School Lunches? No Thank You, Says Congress

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Is pizza with tomato sauce a vegetable? Apparently yes, according to Congress, which on Monday blocked legislation that would have made school lunches healthier.

In their final version of a spending bill that includes planning for the $11 billion National School Lunch Program, House and Senate committee members blocked or delayed major proposals from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that aimed to toughen nutritional standards for students’ subsidized meals.

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The USDA proposals — the first update to school-lunch nutritional guidelines in 15 years — suggested cutting back on salt; reducing starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn, lima beans and peas; and adding more fresh fruits and vegetables. The proposals also called for setting a maximum calorie allowance for meals (currently, there is only a calorie minimum) and installing more specific targets for dairy and whole grain content in school lunches. The USDA also proposed not counting tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable.

Given that a third of American children are overweight or obese, and that they get roughly 40% of their daily calories during school lunch, nutrition experts have long advocated for an overhaul of the federally subsidized meals dished out to 31 million students each year.

Not surprisingly, frozen pizza makers and potato growers pushed back on the USDA proposals. Schools also complained that the changes would have cost too much money, and some politicians and school administrators said the government shouldn’t be in the business of telling school districts that they can’t serve specific foods.

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Citing financial concerns and a lack of data on the potential benefits of the USDA proposals, Congress blocked the following requirements:

  • Limiting starchy vegetables, including corn, peas and potatoes to two servings a week, and requiring weekly minimums of leafy greens and vitamin-rich orange veggies. This measure was aimed at reducing kids’ consumption of French fries, which some schools serve daily. (A group of senators with farmer constituents, led by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, successfully blocked this provision.)
  • Preventing two tablespoons of tomato paste — roughly the amount on a serving of pizza — from being classified as a serving of vegetable. The USDA wanted to increase the conversion, and allow no less than a half-cup of tomato paste — too much to put on a pizza, but adequate for more nutrient-dense meals like pasta, chili, ragout and soup — to equal a serving of vegetables. Federally subsidized lunches are required to have a minimum number of vegetables to be served.
  • Limiting sodium in school meals. Congress wants to hold off until more study is done on the long-term effects of sodium-reduction requirements.
  • Requiring half of all grains and breads to come from whole grains, rather than refined sources. Congress requested that the USDA define “whole grains” before regulating them.

“They are making sure that two of the biggest problems in the school lunch program, pizza and French fries, are untouched,” Margo Wootan, a nutrition advocate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the AP.

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The USDA’s recommendations, originally announced in January, would have significantly revamped the standard school menu, as evidenced by a pair of before-and-after weekly menus [PDF] — one based on the current guidelines, and the other based on the proposed updates. “This is a huge step forward and USDA deserves lots of support for doing this,” wrote Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and the author of Food Politics, on her blog at the time. It’s a shame the agency didn’t get it.

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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