12/07/2011 - 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 Barack 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.
Jessica Donze Black, the project director for the Pew Health Group's School Foods Project, in Washington, said the changes Congress inserted in school-meal regulations will have a ripple effect.
"Science tells us that kids who eat well aren't just healthier; they also perform better at school," she said. "Ultimately, that affects all of us, benefiting our economy while reducing health-care costs."
Ms. Donze Black urged the USDA to find a way to push its proposals.
"Despite Congress' action," she said, "we hope the agency will move forward with a final standard for school meals based on science."
Read the full article, Congress Thwarts Plans to Shape Up School Meals, on Education Week's Web site (subscriber only).