Congress tries to override U.S.D.A. school nutrition plan

by Jay Sjerven
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Certain proposals in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plan for im-proving the nutritional content of meals provided to children in the nation’s schools would be blocked should the Senate and House of Representatives pass and the president sign a fiscal 2012 appropriations bill now before Congress. Senate-House conferees on Nov. 14 submitted to Congress a joint bill that reflected agreement with food industry critics of the U.S.D.A.’s school lunch nutrition plan that some of the proposals were too restrictive and may actually work at cross-purposes to efforts to mitigate the problem of childhood obesity.

Specifically, the bill approp-riating funds for the operation of the U.S.D.A., the Food and Drug Administration and related agencies for fiscal year 2012 would scuttle or delay U.S.D.A. school nutrition pro-posals relating to starchy vegetables, sodium, whole grains and tomato paste.

In January, the U.S.D.A. issued for public comment a proposed rule aimed at raising nutrition standards for meals served in schools. The department noted at the time it would be the first such adjustment in nutrition standards in 15 years. The U.S.D.A. intended, after con-sidering public comments on
the plan, to issue a final rulemaking by the end of the year to implement its proposals.

Among the nutrition pro-posals was one that would have required limiting the amount of starchy vegetables — such as potatoes, corn and green peas — served in school lunches to one cup per pupil per week. Another proposal would have lowered incrementally the amount of sodium in school lunches over 10 years from the estimated current 1,600 mg of sodium per meal to 740 mg or less of sodium per meal for students in grades 9 to 12; 710 mg or less for students in grades 6 through 8, and 640 mg or less for children in kindergarten through fifth grade.

The U.S.D.A. also proposed that one half of grains served in schools must be whole grains, and that tomato paste and puree should be credited on volume used.

Currently, an eighth of a cup of tomato paste is credited with having as much nutritional value as a half a cup of vegetables, which would constitute one serving of vegetables. The U.S.D.A. proposed to treat tomato paste the way it does other fruit or vegetable pastes and purees. The effect would have been a new requirement that only when tomato paste usage amounts to a quarter-cup per meal would it constitute a serving of vegetables. Since the principal use of tomato paste in school lunches is in making pizza, where the volume falls well short of a quarter-cup per serving, the new rule may have discouraged use of tomato paste in schools seeking to meet the required servings of vegetables.

The bill before the full House and Senate indicated none of the funds made available by the act may be used to implement a rule that “sets any maximum limits on the serving of vegetables in school meal programs established under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act and by section 4 of the Child Nutrition Act of 1966; or is inconsistent with the recommendations of the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans for vegetables.” This effectively would cancel the limits on starchy vegetables as proposed by the U.S.D.A.

The bill also would not implement a sodium reduction target beyond Target I, the two-year target, as specified in notice of proposed rulemaking, “Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs” until the Secretary of Agriculture certifies that the U.S.D.A. “has reviewed and evaluated relevant scientific studies and data relevant to the relationship of sodium reductions to human health.”

The bill would prohibit establishing any whole grain requirement without defining “whole grain” and “crediting” tomato paste and puree based on volume.

“This agreement improves childhood nutrition by providing school nutritionists with the ability to serve healthy foods kids enjoy while avoiding burdening schools with massive new costs,” said Kraig R. Naasz, president and chief executive officer of the American Frozen Food Institute.

“Of particular interest to frozen food producers, this agreement ensures that nutrient-rich vegetables such as potatoes, corn and peas will remain part of a balanced, healthy diet in federally funded school meals,” he added.

Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute, commended the conferees for requiring further study before schools are required to significantly reduce sodium content in school lunches.

“We should not subject our school-children or any of our citizens to what amounts to a giant lab experiment,” Ms. Roman said. “There are negative health consequences of a low-salt diet.”

The U.S.D.A in response to the congressional action said, “While it’s unfortunate that some members of Congress continue to put special interests ahead of the health of America’s children, the U.S.D.A. remains committed to practical, science-based standards for school meals.”

Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director, Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, “At a time when child nutrition and childhood obesity are national health concerns, Congress should be supporting U.S.D.A. and school efforts to serve healthier meals, not undermining them. Together, the school lunch riders in the agriculture spending bill would protect industry’s ability to keep pizza and french fries on school lunch trays every day of the week to the detriment of children’s health. If finalized, this legislation may go down in nutritional history as a bigger blunder than when the Reagan administration tried, but failed, to credit ketchup as a vegetable in the school lunch program. Pizza should be served with a vegetable, not count as one.”

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