An Obama administration effort to add more fruits, vegetables and whole grains to U.S. school meals may limit educators’ ability to deliver a balanced diet to 32 million children, meat- and potato-industry groups said.
The first major overhaul of the school meal standards in 15 years, unveiled yesterday, came at the expense of some agriculture interests, by limiting potatoes at breakfast and dropping a requirement that meat be served at the morning meal.
The final rule from the U.S Department of Agriculture will cost $3.2 billion over five years, less than half of what was initially proposed by the administration. The draft was revised after Congress in November halted changes the administration sought to mandate nationwide, including reducing the amount of potatoes and increasing the amount of tomato paste that qualifies as a vegetable.
“The rule’s prescriptive nature in promoting certain groups of vegetables over others will increase costs while handcuffing local schools’ abilities to meet USDA’s nutrition, caloric, fat and sodium requirements,” said John Keeling, executive vice president and CEO of the Washington-based National Potato Council, in a statement. He said his group would work with food-service professionals as they evaluate the changes, which take effect July 1.
The regulations marked a victory for ConAgra Foods Inc., maker of Hunt’s tomato products based in Omaha, Nebraska, and Schwan Food Co., which holds 70 percent of the market for pizza in the $9.5 billion school food-service industry. The companies and food-industry groups enlisted lawmakers such as Senator Susan Collins, a Republican of Maine, to fight the draft rule.
“The potato and French fry industry should be happy,” said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. “There should be a limit on fries and hash browns in schools, and they got Congress to step in and prevent USDA from doing what the science shows is best for kids.”
The rule seeks to improve children’s health and curb obesity. That means more fruit, vegetables and foods rich in whole grains: chef salad and baked sweet potato fries instead of pizza sticks and Tater Tots.
Schools will have to offer minimum amounts of all vegetable types at lunch during a week, reducing salt and fat, and following calorie limits by age. The amount of fruit and vegetables will be doubled.
The Agriculture Department pared the cost of the draft proposal from $6.8 billion over five years in large part by dropping a daily requirement for meat or a meat alternative with breakfast. The industry is pointing out that its products are nutritious too.
“Protein is very important for the health of growing children, and meat is a high quality source of protein,” Jeremy Russell, spokesman for the Oakland, California-based National Meat Association, which represents packers, processors and others in the industry.
The variety of beef options available allows schools to incorporate lean beef into their menu plans on any budget, said Kristina Butts, director of legislative affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, in a statement.
Dropping meat at breakfast won’t impair nutrition because children get plenty of protein, said Wootan in an e-mail. Breakfast meats are often processed and fatty, she said.
The cost to school districts of buying healthier fare and training food preparation staff will be offset in part by an increase of 6 cents in meal reimbursement and higher prices for ala cart items sold by schools, said Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, in a telephone call with reporters.
It’s a welcome change for some teachers such as Christina Cronin from Fremont Junior High School in Mesa, Arizona.
“I think we are moving in the right direction by offering more nutritious choices,” Cronin, 40, said in an e-mail. “I know that each year it seems I have more and more students who are overweight and could benefit from better food choices.”
The rules will be phased in gradually while still mandating changes. Pizza will be whole wheat, and whole wheat spaghetti will replace hot dogs and pizza sticks, according to a before-and-after menu from the USDA.
“The rule, from our perspective, shows the USDA took into account the 120,000 to 130,000 comments they reviewed,” Corey Henry, a spokesman for the McLean, Virginia-based American Frozen Food Institute, said in an interview. “One issue many had flagged was the original $7 billion price tag it would saddle schools with. It’s a welcome change.”
It also should benefit children’s health, according to medical groups. A third of U.S. children are overweight or obese, contributing to $3 billion in annual medical costs, according to the Obama administration.
Obesity among school-age children and adolescents has tripled over the past three decades, according to the nonprofit American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.
“To reverse these statistics, it is vitally important that these new nutritional standards become part of a comprehensive national strategy focused on ensuring the health of today’s children,” John R. Seffrin, CEO of the network and the American Cancer Society, said in a statement.