School Lunch Proposals Set Off a Dispute
By RON NIXON
Published: November 1, 2011
WASHINGTON ? The government has some thoughts on how to make the federally financed school lunch program more nutritious: A quarter-cup of tomato paste on pizza will no longer be considered a vegetable. Cut back on potatoes and add more fresh peaches, apples, spinach and broccoli. And hold the salt.
The proposed changes ? the first in 15 years to the $11 billion school-lunch program ? are meant to reduce rising childhood obesity, Agriculture Department officials say. Food companies including Coca-Cola, Del Monte Foods and the makers of frozen pizza and French fries have a huge stake in the new guidelines and many argue that it would raise the cost of meals and call for food that too many children just will not eat.
With some nutrition experts rallying to the Obama administration’s side, the battle is shaping up as a contentious and complicated fight involving lawmakers from farm states and large low-income urban areas that rely on the program, which fed some 30 million children last year with free or subsidized meals. Food companies have spent more than $5.6 million so far lobbying against the proposed rules.
A group of farm-state senators have already succeeded in blocking an Agriculture Department plan to limit the amount of starchy foods in school meals, and are now hoping to win a larger victory. The group includes Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, and Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who once worked picking potatoes and led the opposition to the new starch rules last month.
A third of American children are obese or overweight, according to the government, and roughly 40 percent of the calories they eat are consumed in the school lunch period. Nutrition experts say if the nation wants to make progress on the obesity crisis among children, what they eat at lunchtime has to be addressed.
The Agriculture Department said the proposed rules would add about $6.8 billion over the next five years, about 14 cents to the cost of a school lunch. But, “our proposed rule will improve the health and nutrition of our children and is based on sound science,” Kevin Concannon, an Agriculture Department under secretary, said in a statement.
Nutritionists like Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University and the author of “Food Politics,” called the proposed guidelines long overdue. “Schools are supposed to set an example of many values of society, and one of them ought to be eating well,” Ms. Nestle said. “It’s unfortunate that the food industry is putting profits before the health of children.”
According to a Harvard School of Public Health study, published this year in The New England Journal of Medicine, starchy carbohydrates like those in potatoes are responsible for many of the nation’s health problems, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. French fries and potato chips are the worst uses of the potato, but even boiled potatoes contribute to weight gain, the study found.
“And kids in school are getting the full brunt of that in their potato-rich diets,” said Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health. “While potatoes do have important nutrients, the nutrients can be found in other foods.”
The food industry agrees that eating more fruits and vegetables and reducing salt is a good thing. It says it has developed healthier foods over time to make school lunches more nutritious. But they say the government’s proposals go too far too quickly.
The National Potato Council, for example, said the proposal to offer fewer weekly servings of potatoes in favor of other vegetables and fruits was overly restrictive. “Everyone thinks that the only thing kids eat in school are French fries,” said John Keeling, the council’s executive vice president and chief executive. “But 90 percent of the potatoes served in schools are baked, boiled or mashed.”
Mr. Keeling said potatoes provided many of the nutrients like potassium and fiber that the Agriculture Department recommends and that limiting potatoes would increase the cost of meals. “Ninety percent of kids aren’t getting enough of the nutrients they need or the vegetables they need. It doesn’t make sense to tell them to eat less,” Mr. Keeling said. Besides, he added, children will actually eat potatoes as opposed to some other vegetables.
Leah Schmidt, director of nutrition services for Hickman Mills C-1 Schools in Kansas City, Mo., said children would eat other vegetables if they were cooked and seasoned to children’s tastes. “But there is no denying kids will eat potatoes,” she said. “They are popular.”
The American Frozen Food Institute said it was particularly concerned that the new guidelines would overly restrict sodium levels and greatly increase portions of tomato paste to qualify as a vegetable serving. Schools would not be able to serve popular tomato products like salsa and spaghetti sauce unless the portions greatly exceeded one-quarter cup to count as a helping of vegetables. Corey Henry, a spokesman for the institute, called the tomato paste rules ridiculous. “You would basically render a pizza inedible if you had to put that much sauce on it to meet the new standards, and pizza is a big part of school lunches,” Mr. Henry said.
The government’s proposal echoes an uproar 30 years ago when the Reagan administration proposed saving money on the school lunch program by making a serving of ketchup a vegetable instead of a condiment. The idea was widely mocked and was never put in place.
The industry’s arguments have been persuasive, especially to lawmakers from agricultural states or from districts with a large number of low-income students. Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, largely echoed the industry’s arguments in a letter last June that asked the Agriculture Department to reconsider its recommendations on the timeframe for reducing sodium and the tomato paste rules.
Schools that serve more than 60 percent of their lunches for free or reduced prices are reimbursed $2.79 per meal by the federal government. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus worry that that might not be enough to cover the additional cost of preparing healthier meals in low-income districts.
The House has passed a bill directing the Agriculture Department to basically start over with a new proposal while the Senate has restricted the department from cutting back on potatoes.
“This whole fight obscures the fact that the U.S.D.A.’s proposal is about helping kids eat a wide variety of vegetable and make lunches overall healthier,” said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit research group. “It’s about our children’s health. I think that point has long since been lost.”
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