TOPICS > Health

What’s on the Menu in School Cafeterias?

November 24, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Lawmakers recently weighed in on what's in school lunches, a battle that attracted a great deal of attention from the food industry. Judy Woodruff reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last week, amidst the continued tensions over the federal budget, Congress did agree on one thing — the rules for school lunches.

The Agriculture Department had sought to limit servings of French fries and to add more tomato paste to pizza, so that it could continue to count as a serving of vegetables for children. But members of both parties in the House and the Senate blocked those recommendations. They did approve an increase in the servings of fruits and vegetables required.

Here to walk us through the rules and what they mean for the tens of millions of kids who eat school lunches is Ron Nixon of The New York Times.

Ron Nixon, welcome.

RON NIXON, The New York Times: Thank you, Judy. Thanks for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me just start by asking you, what were the main things the Agriculture Department was asking Congress to do?

RON NIXON: Well, the Agriculture Department introduced these rules in January and they were to update nutrition standards for school lunches and breakfast. This is the first update in 15 years.

So, basically, they wanted to have kids eat more fruits and vegetables, particularly leafy green vegetables, which are better for you. They wanted to cut back the amount of starchy vegetables that kids ate — potatoes being one. They wanted to decrease the amount of sodium, or salt.

And they also wanted to update the rules on how schools got credit for serving vegetables by serving pizza based on the amount of tomato paste on pizza.

So if you had about two teaspoons or a little bit more of tomato paste on a pizza and some mushrooms that got counted as two servings of vegetables so they wanted to update that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it was all about making school lunches healthier.

RON NIXON: Exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, who was on each side? Who was behind the — working with the Agriculture Department and who was fighting this?

RON NIXON: For the Agriculture Department, the nutritionist, the Obama administration particularly because the first lady really pushed more Americans eating fruits and vegetables and having kids become healthier. And so, you know, health advocates were certainly behind the USDA on doing this.

But on the other side were some of the trade groups like the National Potato Council, the American Frozen Food Institute and lawmakers from various farm states who said the rules went too far by limiting things like potatoes, which are rich in potassium and other vitamins and nutrients, and that the rules on tomato paste made no sense because if you up the amount to — you would basically have a pizza that you couldn’t eat because it would just be dripping with tomato paste.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Too much tomato paste, wouldn’t taste like pizza anymore.

RON NIXON: Exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, how did — did the administration, did the Agriculture Department have a counter to those arguments?

RON NIXON: Well, they did. They had the Institute of Medicine look at this and come up with these recommendations. They wanted to have a scientific basis for doing this. And so, they presented this to Congress. They put the rules out for comment, and they got thousands of comments back and forth. And so, you know, they were saying this is scientifically based. This is not something we’re just coming with op the top of our heads.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And when Congress — when it came time to vote, Congress basically sided for most things, with the food industry, is that right?

RON NIXON: That’s correct. And this is what members of Congress basically said — and this was led, of course, by various members from the farm states. So, their argument was that by taking away potatoes and changing the rules on tomato paste, you were basically robbing kids of nutritional foods when at the same time, you’re telling them to eat more fruits and vegetables, where here are two vegetables that you’re trying to take away.

So why do that? And they also went along with the industry’s argument that, well, they could remove the amount of salt or sodium in foods in a given time because sodium occurs naturally in foods. So, it would be a tremendous cost and they would have to do a lot things just to make it within the time frame that USDA had set.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we should point out that they did go ahead and up the requirement for the amount of fruits and vegetables?

RON NIXON: Fruits and vegetables. Yes, that’s correct.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, that the USDA, the Agriculture Department, did win on.

RON NIXON: They did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what are schools — what are American school children left with? Those who rely on these federally subsidized lunches? How healthy a lunch are they going to be getting?

RON NIXON: Well, that’s debatable and that’s the argument as to how healthy these lunches are going to be because one of the things that a lot of nutritionists said, things like potatoes, basically pushed off of the plate other fruits and vegetables that kids would eat. So, there’s still some debate on — well, how is that going to happen because you’re still left with– you still serve potatoes. There are no restrictions on that. The tomato paste remains the same. So, are schools going to go out and get more fruits and vegetables, which cost more, and does add a cost to their budgets to buy this stuff.

So, it’s sort of up in the air on how this is going to work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, end the battle for now, though?

RON NIXON: For now. I mean, the USDA will probably go ahead and finalize the rules at the end of the year. But potatoes will still be on their and pizza will basically still count as a vegetable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ron Nixon of the New York Times, thanks very much.

RON NIXON: Thank you for having me.