A move to block federal legislation that would limit the use of potatoes, restrict the amount of sodium and boost the use of whole grains in public school lunch lines is winding down as a spending bill nears a vote this week.
But whatever direction is taken on even the tiniest of details, such as whether to allow tomato paste on pizzas to be counted as a vegetable — the USDA had wanted to only count a half-cup of tomato paste or more as a vegetable, and a serving of pizza has less than that — Johnson City Schools Food Services Supervisor Karen McGahey says the school system has been taking the path toward better nutrition for years.
“It is something food service directors in this area have been monitoring for some time,” McGahey said about the legislation. “Many of us already have implemented the changes. And basically, we know that the food served must be student friendly, because many students will bring food to school that is not going to have the nutritional value in it that they can get at school.”
Many school districts have said some of the USDA proposals go too far and cost too much when budgets are extremely tight. Schools have been using general instructions from the government on what they can serve in the federally subsidized meals that are given free or at reduced price to low-income children. More than 50 percent of students in the Johnson City School System are in this category.
But some schools have balked at government attempts to tell them exactly what foods they can’t serve. Reacting to that criticism, House Republicans had urged USDA to rewrite the standards in a bill passed in June.
Nutritionists say the whole effort is reminiscent of the Reagan administration’s much-ridiculed attempt 30 years ago to classify ketchup as a vegetable to cut costs. This time around, food companies that produce frozen pizzas for schools, the salt industry and potato growers requested the changes and lobbied Congress.
School meals that are subsidized by the federal government must include a certain amount of vegetables, and USDA’s proposal could have pushed pizza-makers and potato growers out of the school lunch business.
Agreeing with the companies’ opposition, some conservatives argue that the federal government shouldn’t tell children what to eat. In a summary of the bill, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee said the changes would “prevent overly burdensome and costly regulations and ... provide greater flexibility for local school districts to improve the nutritional quality of meals.”
McGahey helped thread together a regional consortium of school system food service directors and supervisors who stay on top of any legislation coming down the pike that may affect them. The network also allows for closer and more frequent interaction.
“We’re all increasing the use of whole grains,” McGahey said. “And for the first time, the dairies are producing an increasing amount of fat-free milk for use in our public schools. We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve.”
The school lunch provisions are part of a final House-Senate compromise on a $182 billion measure that would fund the day-to-day operations of the 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.
Should the bill stand as written, it would:
n Block the Agriculture Department from limiting starchy vegetables, including corn and peas, to two servings a week. The rule was intended to cut down on french fries, which many schools serve daily.
n Allow USDA to count two tablespoons of tomato paste as a vegetable, as it does now. The department had attempted to require that only a half-cup of tomato paste could be considered a vegetable. Federally subsidized lunches must have a certain number of vegetables to be served.
n Require further study on long-term sodium reduction requirements set forth by the USDA guidelines.
n Require USDA to define “whole grains” before they regulate them. The USDA rules require schools to use more whole grains.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.