When the U.S. Department of Agriculture decides by the end of the year what school meals should look like, the agency will not be able to make all the changes it proposed in January, including placing limits on one food linked to obesity.
Congress last month added clauses to the agriculture appropriations bill that keep the USDA from limiting how many servings of starchy vegetables, including white potatoes, students are allowed each week. Other provisions in the bill, signed by President Obama on Nov. 18, allow a small amount of tomato paste on a slice of pizza to be considered a serving of vegetables, cut back on some of the limits the USDA wanted to place on the sodium content of school meals, and require the agency to define what items are considered whole grains.
Although the Obama administration, and particularly first lady Michelle Obama, has emphasized healthier eating and more exercise for American schoolchildren, the provisions on school meals were built into a large bill that finances the USDA and several other federal agencies for fiscal 2012 and keeps the federal government running through Dec. 16.
Congress authorized the USDA to rewrite school-meal rules in the first place with last year's passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The agency is still on track to unveil final rules for breakfast and lunch before the end of the year, and those rules are set to take effect next school year. But a spokeswoman for the USDA said the end product will be less ambitious because Congress bowed to food companies and specific industries instead of listening to experts on health and nutrition.
"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," the spokeswoman, Courtney Rowe, said.
The USDA's proposal, based on recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, an independent group that advises federal policymakers, called for limiting starchy vegetables--specifically corn, lima beans, white potatoes, and peas--to one cup per week. The institute called for limits on those vegetables in part because nearly a third of the vegetables children consume are potatoes, and most of those are in the form of chips or fries. A half-cup is considered a serving of fruit or vegetables, so the rule would have limited potatoes and other starches to two appearances per week at lunch and none at breakfast.
Potato growers insisted that spuds, with fiber and potassium, are nutritious, especially when served in forms other than fries. And because they are cheap, school cafeterias can serve them while accommodating other changes proposed by the USDA that could be costly, including adding more green and orange vegetables to students' plates, although the proposal also provides ways for schools to cover many of those costs.
"This is an important step for the school districts, parents, and taxpayers who would shoulder the burden of USDA's proposed $6.8 billion school-meal regulation that will not increase the delivery of key nutrients," said John Keeling, the executive vice president and chief executive officer of the National Potato Council, in Washington.
Two senators, Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Democrat Mark Udall of Colorado, worked that provision into the bill when it was discussed in the Senate in November. Both senators come from potato-growing states.
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