In the past couple of weeks, you’ve probably heard about the proposed changes to the National School Lunch program in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Most of the news coverage is centered on the “pizza as a vegetable” topic, but I thought I’d give you some more background.

The National School Lunch Program is a federally funded program whereby states receive subsidies for meals offered to students in public and non-profit private schools and residential childcare facilities. Students can be eligible for either low cost or free lunches. In 2010, the program provided meals to more than 31.7 million children each school day.

Proposed Changes

In the face of childhood obesity, which has tripled over the last 50 years, the USDA proposed a rule that would make school lunch and breakfast menus healthier and more nutritious. Changes to the rules, which haven’t been revised in more than 15 years, would align menus with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines* and are intended to reduce childhood obesity. The proposed rule would require schools to offer more fruits, vegetables and whole grains; offer only fat-free or low-fat fluid milk; reduce the sodium content of school meals substantially over time; control saturated fat and calorie levels; and minimize trans fat. Offering healthier meals would enable the program to better meet the nutritional needs of children and would reinforce the healthy eating habits they are taught in nutrition education lessons.

The Challenges

The USDA estimates that making these changes would cost almost $7 billion dollars over the next five years, with changes being phased in gradually. This would increase the cost of meals by 14 cents and states would have to make up some of the extra cost. For states that are already strapped for cash, this would be difficult to do, even if changes take effect slowly. Offering more fresh produce and other foods may require additional training for food service staff, extra cafeteria resources, and other potential costs to schools. In the more than 130,000 public comments that Congress received on the proposed bill, these were among the important points brought up by school districts, school administrators, and food service representatives.

The proposed rule also isn’t perfect. The changes could be stricter – for example, require all grains to be whole grains instead of just half of servings; phase out flavored milk due to its high sugar content; or phase out canned fruits and vegetables completely. But, making the changes stricter would further increase the financial burden on schools. The USDA also has to strike a delicate balance between changes that will improve children’s health but that will still be appealing to them. Many have expressed concern that kids won’t respond well to healthier offerings, resulting in a drop in program participation, kids not taking the foods offered, or throwing them away.

What happened in Congress

Industry groups and other special interests have been lobbying against the proposed rule since it was introduced in January 2010. In particular, the potato industry has vehemently opposed the part of the rule that limited servings of potatoes and other starchy vegetables (such as peas and corn) to 2 cups per week. More recently, members of the frozen food industry have voiced their anger over the amount of tomato paste on pizza that can be counted as a vegetable. The current requirements allow for 1/4 cup of tomato paste per slice to be counted as a vegetable but the proposed rule would have increased the amount, which pizza makers argued would make their product unappetizing.

On Tuesday, the proposed rule was shot down in Congress, but the USDA remains resilient in its efforts to improve the nutrition content and quality of school lunches. For now, pizza is still counted as a vegetable. This quote from the New York Times sums it up:

“It’s a shame that Congress seems more interested in protecting industry than protecting children’s health,” said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit research group. “At a time when child nutrition and childhood obesity are national health concerns, Congress should be supporting U.S.D.A. and school efforts to serve healthier school meals, not undermining them.” [NYT]

If you’re really interested in all the details, you can read the 78-page proposed rule, the White House fact sheet, or check out a sample before/after menu. To tell Congress how you feel about their catering to industry lobbyists instead of protecting children’s health, sign this petition by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

*Why not the 2010 Dietary Guidelines? Because the rule was proposed just a month shy of the most recent version of the Dietary Guidlines.