Analysis

Congress Weakens USDA’s Plan to Improve School Meals

It’s a stark reality: today’s kids may be the first generation in our nation’s history to actually live sicker, shorter lives than their parents. Today, one in three kids is overweight or obese and more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and other long-term chronic illnesses. Reversing this trend will not be easy, but it is doable. And ensuring that schools serve or sell healthy foods is a good place to start, given that many children consume more than half of their daily calories at school.

In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed a plan to update school meal nutrition standards for the first time in 15 years. The proposal would ensure schools serve more fruits, vegetables and whole-grains while limiting calories, salt and fat.

Some members of Congress raised concerns with two key provisions.

The existing, outdated standards allow as little as two tablespoons of tomato paste to count as a serving of vegetables—making the sauce on one slice of pizza equal to one full serving of tomatoes. USDA’s proposal would have closed this tomato paste loophole. In addition, USDA had proposed limits on starchy vegetables like potatoes. Combined, these two requirements would have put the focus on more nutritious, whole vegetables and encouraged kids to eat a wider variety of them, as recommended by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

As part of the debate on the FY 2012 Agriculture Appropriations Bill, Congress voted to restrict how USDA measures tomato paste, meaning one slice of pizza may still be allowed to count as a serving or half a serving of vegetables. The vote also bars USDA from requiring the limits on starchy vegetables in the cafeteria line.

This law could weaken the effort to make school meals healthier despite the fact that the American people support such efforts. More than three out of four voters—78 percent—believe that schools should be required to meet higher nutrition standards for all foods they serve or sell to students.

Ensuring schools serve healthful, well-balanced meals supports the efforts parents make at home to feed their kids nutritious food and teach them how to make healthy choices.  Thousands of schools across the country—in communities large and small, urban and rural—already are proving that they can serve healthy meals that kids will eat at an affordable price. They’re serving more fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy items, while featuring fewer fried foods on their menu, and it’s working. But thousands of other schools have not made these changes, so USDA’s stronger standards are urgently needed to help our kids.

Because kids who eat well aren’t just healthier; they also perform better at school. Ultimately, that affects all Americans—benefitting our economy while also reducing health care costs.

USDA must finalize the nutrition standards in a way that will not only improve school meals, but ultimately, the long-term health of our children and nation.

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