WASHINGTON -- Who needs leafy greens and carrots when pizza and french fries will do?
In an effort many kids will cheer, Congress wants pizza and fries to stay on school lunch lines and is fighting the White House's efforts to take unhealthy foods out of schools.
The final version of a spending bill released late Monday would unravel school lunch standards the Agriculture Department proposed earlier this year. These include limiting the use of potatoes, putting new restrictions on sodium and boosting the use of whole grains. The legislation would block or delay those efforts.
The bill also would allow tomato paste on pizzas to be counted as a vegetable, as it is now. The USDA had wanted to count a half-cup of tomato paste or more as a vegetable, and a serving of pizza has less.
Nutritionists say the effort is reminiscent of the Reagan administration's attempt 30 years ago to classify ketchup as a vegetable to cut costs. This time, companies that produce frozen pizzas for schools, the salt industry and potato growers requested the changes and lobbied Congress.
School meals that are subsidized by the federal government must include a certain amount of vegetables, and the USDA's proposal could have pushed pizza-makers and potato growers out of the school lunch business.
Piling on to the companies' opposition, some conservatives argue that the federal government shouldn't tell children what to eat. In a summary of the bill, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee said the changes would "prevent overly burdensome and costly regulations and … provide greater flexibility for local school districts to improve the nutritional quality of meals."
The school lunch proposal is based on 2009 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said they are necessary to reduce childhood obesity and future health care costs.