Potatoes, pizza loophole survive for school lunches

Posted Nov. 16, 2011, at 5:33 a.m.

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s push to limit the starchy vegetables and tomato paste served to millions of children at school each day was derailed by lawmakers this week, in effect enabling school cafeterias to continue offering pizza and french fries.

For nearly a year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been crafting a proposal aimed at providing more nutritious school lunches that include an array of fruits and vegetables. But the food industry and its allies in Congress have pushed back on the details, saying the proposal would be costly, partly because of vegetable prices.

The USDA proposal, based on recommendations from the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine, would put a one cup per week limit on the amount of white potatoes and other starchy vegetables served to schoolchildren.

The proposal also would have nixed the favorable treatment granted to tomato paste. Currently, an eighth of a cup of tomato paste is credited with as much nutritional value as half a cup of vegetables and thus counts as one vegetable serving. That enables food makers to better market their pizzas to schools.

The argument for the special consideration given to tomato paste has been that once it’s mixed with water, as often happens in making pizza sauce, more of a vegetable is created.

The USDA wants to bring tomato paste in line with how other fruit pastes and purees are treated.

Ordinarily, these type of issues would be hashed out as the USDA gathers comments from the public while finalizing the proposal. But several lawmakers made an end run around the process. They added amendments to block the two changes, on starchy vegetables and tomato paste, to agriculture spending bills moving through the Senate and House.

Late Monday, Senate and House negotiators reconciled the differences between their two spending bills and unveiled the final version, which included language to halt the potato and tomato paste changes. The Senate and House are expected to vote on that version later this week. If it passes, the USDA will be forced to drop its plans regarding potatoes and tomato paste as it presses to finalize its broader school lunch initiative by the end of the year.

Consumer advocates said the stripped-down proposal will still be an improvement over the current nutrition guidelines. But they and USDA officials expressed disappointment.

“While it’s unfortunate that some members of Congress continue to put special interests ahead of the health of America’s children, USDA remains committed to practical, science-based standards for school meals,” a statement from the department said.

Margo Wootan, a director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the decision could go down as a bigger blunder than the Reagan administration’s unsuccessful effort in the 1980s to credit ketchup as a vegetable in the school lunch program.

“Given all the concern about childhood obesity, Congress should be helping schools serve healthier foods, not hurting that effort,” Wootan said.

Retired military leaders also weighed in. In a letter to Congress earlier this week, a group of retired generals and admirals urged lawmakers to close the “pizza loophole” and fight obesity, the leading medical disqualifier for military service.

House lawmakers involved in negotiating the spending bill had wanted to scrap the entire USDA school lunch proposal, citing its $6.8 billion price tag and the financial burdens it would place on school districts, people familiar with the negotiations said. Facing that broader criticism, Senate and House conferees scrapped the USDA’s tomato and potato proposals. The food industry cheered.

The American Frozen Food Institute, affiliated with the National Frozen Pizza Institute, called the compromise a “balanced approach” that “recognizes the significant amounts of potassium, fiber and vitamins A and C provided by tomato paste and ensures students may continue to enjoy healthy meals such as pizza and pasta.”

While the push to protect tomato paste came from House Republicans, people familiar with the negotiations said, some senators also opposed ending its favored status. Some lawmakers argued that school nutritionists, not federal bureaucrats, should make food decisions.

“Tomato paste is nutritionally dense, but the Department of Agriculture said it must meet the same volume as a fresh tomato,” Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said in a floor speech earlier this month. “That doesn’t make much sense.”

The National Potato Council, which worked with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., to strip out the limits on starchy vegetables, also hailed the compromise. Collins said the limits that the USDA wants to impose on starchy vegetables — including white potatoes, corn, peas and lima beans — were arbitrary.

The problem lies not with potatoes, which are full of healthful nutrients, but rather the way they are prepared, Collins said. In a recent Senate speech, she said baked potatoes are often “a vehicle” for other vegetables. Yet students would not be allowed to eat a baked potato one day and an ear of fresh corn later that week, an “absurd result,” Collins said.

Collins also raised the cost issue, which was cited by Democrats as well. Some schools could be forced to drop their school breakfast programs because the USDA’s proposal would increase costs by 50 cents, she said. The USDA proposal would ban starchy vegetables from federally funded breakfasts, too.

The USDA rejects the cost argument as it applies to starchy vegetables.

It says the most recent federal data show that most elementary schools already serve portions of starchy vegetables that are near or below the proposed one-cup-per-week limit. High schools, on average, exceed the recommended limit, but these schools account for only 20 percent of the students who get federally funded meals, USDA said.

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