By Mary Clare Jalonick Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Congress is unraveling the Obama administration’s attempt to make school lunches healthier, pushing back against Agriculture Department efforts to limit french fries and pizzas, reduce sodium and boost whole grains on school lunch lines.
The final version of a wide-ranging spending bill released late Monday would force the department to drop an attempt to limit servings of potatoes per week, delay proposed limits on sodium and delay a requirement to boost whole grains. The department proposed the standards earlier this year.
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 to provide greater flexibility for local school districts to improve the nutritional quality of meals.”
House Republicans had urged the 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, which was added by negotiators on the bill from both chambers.
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 for free or 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 to prevent future health care costs.
Nutrition advocate Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says 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 lower levels of sodium and whole grain crust.
“They are making sure that two of the biggest problems in the school lunch program, pizza and french fries, are untouched,” she said.
The school lunch provisions are part of a final House-Senate compromise on a $182 billion measure would fund the day-to-day 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.