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Critics protest USDA spending bill for meddling with proposed school meal rule

by Joan Murphy | November 22, 2011

WASHINGTON -- President Obama signed a fiscal 2012 spending bill Nov. 18 that not only funds the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the current year but directs USDA to change how vegetables are counted in its proposed school meal rule.

The House passed the budget bill Nov. 17, followed by the Senate hours later, which includes funding for the Food & Drug Administration and USDA, among other government agencies.

Much of the news headlines swirled around amendments tucked in the spending bill that force USDA's hand on starchy vegetables, sodium and tomato paste in a yet-to-be-finalized school meal regulation.

"It's unfortunate that the FY 12 Ag Appropriations bill will force USDA to allow pizza to be counted as a vegetable," said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the United Fresh Produce Association. "Pizza should be served with a vegetable at school lunch. Our goal has always been to see the new school meal regulations double the amount of healthy fruits and vegetables served in school meals, and we hope the interim final rule holds true to that goal."

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), speaking on the House floor, said that he was outraged by language inserted in the bill that allows pizza, if it has at least two tablespoons of tomato paste, to be defined as a vegetable.

"The needs of special interest groups are being put ahead of the health needs of children across the country," Rep. Kucinich said. "By including these provisions, we are allowing the salt, potato growers and frozen food industries to continue feeding the childhood obesity epidemic."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest also blasted the amendment.

"If finalized, this legislation may go down in nutritional history as a bigger blunder than when the Reagan administration tried (but failed) to credit ketchup as a vegetable in the school lunch program," said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at CSPI. "Pizza should be served with a vegetable, not count as one."

The final measure also blocked USDA from limiting starch vegetables in federally supported school meals.

"The language overturns arbitrary restrictions proposed by the USDA that would have so restricted the use of potatoes in the school lunch program that a school could not have served a baked potato and an ear of fresh corn in the same week -- an absurd result," Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said Nov. 17 on the Senate floor.

Rep. Collins spearheaded an amendment attached to the Senate appropriations bill that would bar USDA from limiting certain vegetable servings in federally supported school meals.