Yes, kids, pizza is a vegetable.

Congress Blocks New Rules on School Lunches

Published: November 15, 2011 NYTimes

WASHINGTON — A slice of pizza still counts as a vegetable.

In a victory for the makers of frozen pizzas, tomato paste and French fries, Congress on Monday blocked rules proposed by the Agriculture Department that would have overhauled the nation’s school lunch program.

The proposed changes — the first in 15 years to the $11 billion school lunch program — were meant to reduce childhood obesity by adding more fruits and green vegetables to lunch menus, Agriculture Department officials said.

The rules, proposed last January, would have cut the amount of potatoes served and would have changed the way schools received credit for serving vegetables by continuing to count tomato paste on a slice of pizza only if more than a quarter-cup of it was used. The rules would have also halved the amount of sodium in school meals over the next 10 years.

But late Monday, lawmakers drafting a House and Senate compromise for the agriculture spending bill blocked the department from using money to carry out any of the proposed rules.

In a statement, the Agriculture Department expressed its disappointment with the decision.

“While it is unfortunate that some in Congress chose to bow to special interests, U.S.D.A. remains committed to practical, science-based standards for school meals that improve the health of our children,” the department said in the statement.

Food companies including ConAgra, Coca-Cola, Del Monte Foods and makers of frozen pizza like Schwan argued that the proposed rules would raise the cost of meals and require food that many children would throw away.

The companies called the Congressional response reasonable, adding that the Agriculture Department went too far in trying to improve nutrition in school lunches.

“This is an important step for the school districts, parents and taxpayers who would shoulder the burden of U.S.D.A.’s proposed $6.8 billion school meal regulation that will not increase the delivery of key nutrients,” said John Keeling, executive vice president and chief executive of the National Potato Council.

The Agriculture Department had estimated that the proposal would have cost about $6.8 billion over the next five years, adding about 14 cents a meal to the cost of a school lunch.

Corey Henry, a spokesman for the American Frozen Food Institute, said the proposed rules simply did not make sense, especially when it came to pizza.

The industry backs the current rules which say that about a quarter-cup of tomato paste on a slice of pizza can count as a vegetable serving. The Agriculture Department proposal would have required that schools serve more tomato paste per piece of pizza to get a vegetable credit, an idea the industry thought would make pizza unappetizing.

The department said the change would have simply brought tomato paste in line with the way other fruit pastes and purees were credited in school meals.

Nutrition experts called the action by Congress a setback for improving the nutritional standards in school lunches and addressing childhood obesity.

“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.”

A version of this article appeared in print on November 16, 2011, on page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: Congress Blocks New Rules on School Lunches.

Budget Effects on SNAP

Nearly all of the information in this post comes from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities April 11th report, “Ryan budget would slash SNAP funding by $127 billion over ten years” by Dorothy Rosenbaum as well as from the Mass Law Reform Institute, convener of the Boston SNAP Coalition.    

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget plan would cut the SNAP program (formerly food stamps) by $127 billion – almost 20% – over the next tens years (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities).  Besides proposing turning the program into a block grant, he hasn’t provided details on how the cuts would be achieved.

Nationwide, there are currently 44 million people receiving SNAP.  If the cuts came solely from eliminating eligibility categories of currently eligible households or individuals, more than 8 million people would need to be cut from the program.

If cuts were applied to amount of benefits families receive, all families of four would see their benefits cut by $147 a month, or $1,764 a year.  A family of three would be subject to cuts of $116 per month, or $1,392 a year.  That is money that would be spent at local grocery stores and farmers’ markets and would have a negative economic impact on local economies.

The growth in SNAP expenditures over the past three years is a result of the economic recession, not the result of a program that has grown out of control.  People receiving SNAP benefits are often low-income families with children, seniors and people with disabilities.   Currently 43.6 million Americans live below the poverty line, with is roughly $22,350 for a family of four.  93% of all SNAP benefits are going to these households.  Three-quarters of SNAP participants are in families with children; one third are in households that include senior citizens or people with disabilities.   Cutting benefits from these households will not improve our communities, our economies, our health as a nation, or our education systems.  These cuts have the ability to negatively impact all of these.

As Pat Baker of the Mass Law Reform Institute points out, the SNAP caseload in Massachusetts has increased by more than 300% since 2002 (now exceeding 800,000 participants) while SNAP staff at the DTA office has decreased by more than 30% during this same time period.  As a result, the SNAP caseload has surged to more than 1,000 per SNAP worker in many offices across the Commonwealth.  At the state level, we do not need to see more cuts to the DTA administration that is administering this federally funded program.

The economic benefits that the state sees as a result of the SNAP program are outstanding.  For every $1 in administrative costs that the state spends, the Commonwealth leverages at least $50 in 100% federally funded nutrition benefits.  These go directly into the hands of local grocers, supermarkets, and farmers – people that are the very base of our economy.

At both the federal and the state level we need to see responsible funding of SNAP benefits and the administration process that delivers these benefits.

On Monday, April 4th Congressman McGovern spoke on the House floor against these cuts.

Today, the House will be voting on the 2012 budget.   Mass congressmen McGovern, Frank, and Markey have stood up against these cuts.  You can call the Capital Switchboard toll free at 1-888-245-0215 to get ahold of your congressperon and ask him/her to stand up against these cuts as well.

Federal Nutrition Guidelines

As part of the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (Child Nutrition Reauthorization), new standards for the federal school meals program are being developed.  Proposed regulations were released over the winter and yesterday was the final day to submit written comment.  Here’s what HFH submitted:

April 13, 2011

Julie Brewer

Chief, Policy and Program Development Branch, Child Nutrition Division

Food and Nutrition Service, Department of Agriculture

3101 Park Center Drive, Room 640

Alexandria, Virginia 22302–1594

Docket ID: FNS-2007-0038-0001

Re:  Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program

Dear Ms. Brewer:

The Worcester Food and Active Living Policy Council is working  is working to support a healthy Worcester community by increasing healthy food access as part of a healthy, just food system and active community environment.  The council is comprised of many organizations, agencies, institutions as well as passionate community residents.

One of the top priorities of council is the successful implementation of state and federal school nutrition legislation, including adoption of regulations pursuant to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

We work directly with our districts food service director, who has been an incredible partner in increasing the nutritious quality of school meals, as well as increasing the amount of locally grown produce that is part of the meal.  We have also worked with many community and statewide partners in passing statewide legislation that creates nutrition standards for competitive foods.  We know that positive changes are possible because we’ve seen them firsthand in schools across the state.

The Worcester Food and Active Living Policy Council strongly supports the proposed rule for nutrition standards for the school meal programs, although we would recommend stronger rules on certain topics as detailed below. Given the high obesity rates among children and the important role school meals play in children’s diet, once implemented, these updated standards will make an important contribution to the improved the long-term health of millions of children across the country.  We respectfully offer the following comments regarding the proposed rule.

Fruits and vegetables

We support USDA’s proposal to increase the number of servings and the variety of fruits and vegetables. The proposal to require minimum and/or maximum servings of certain vegetable subgroups and allowing fruit juice to only provide up to one-half of the daily fruit requirement will improve the variety of vegetables offered and consumed by students.

We urge you to go further and not allow schools to deep-fry any foods, including vegetables.

Whole grains

We support the proposal to increase the requirement for whole grains in the school lunch and breakfast programs.


We applaud USDA for identifying sodium reduction in school meals as a key objective and support USDA’s plan to significantly reduce sodium in the school meal programs over the next 10 years. We also agree with the intermediate targets proposed.

We also urge the USDA to help schools face the challenge of reducing sodium by working with State Agencies to ensure schools in every state have full access to the lower-sodium USDA Foods on the foods available list and by working with the food industry to reduce sodium in foods commonly served in schools.

Added Sugars

Added sugars provide additional calories with few nutrients and contribute to overweight and obesity. Yet, added sugars limits are not required in the proposed rule.  We recommend that USDA address added sugars in the school meal programs by focusing on the foods that are the largest contributors to added sugar intake and that are common components of school meals: grain-based desserts, dairy-based desserts, ready-to-eat cereals, and flavored milk.

We urge USDA to go further and limit the number and portion sizes of grain-based and dairy-based desserts served over the course of the week and to limit sugar content in breakfast cereal.


We agree with USDA’s proposal for calorie minimum and maximum levels in the school meal programs.  The ranges support the need to balance between providing good nutrition, addressing concerns about childhood obesity, and addressing food insecurity.  They also will support the school meal programs in modeling appropriate portion sizes and calorie levels.

Saturated and Trans Fats

We support the proposal to continue the current standard of less than 10% of calories from saturated fat.. We also support the proposed requirement to minimize trans fat.

Fluid Milk

We strongly support the proposed requirement that only low-fat unflavored and fat-free unflavored and flavored milk be allowed.  This standard is consistent with the recommendations of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  USDA should also provide technical assistance to schools to procure flavored milk that contains low amounts of added sugars.

Meat/Meat Alternates

We support the emphasis on lower sodium lean meats and meat alternates as a way to help schools reduce saturated fats and sodium. We are concerned, however, that a daily meat requirement may increase consumption of saturated fat and sodium, as a one-ounce daily minimum would often have to be augmented with additional meat/meat alternate to make a reasonable portion.  Applying a weekly requirement, without daily minimums, may help to decrease costs and increase menu planning flexibility.

Healthier USDA food offerings and recipes

While we are very pleased that USDA currently provides high fiber options such as whole wheat pasta and brown rice through the USDA Foods program, we encourage you to expand your offerings to include more whole grain, low fat, high fiber, low sugar, and low sodium items. This will help school nutrition directors meet the proposed guidelines while keeping food costs within the federal reimbursement. Once schools are required to offer 100% whole grain rich products, it is advisable that USDA discontinue providing all non-whole grain rich products. Finally, providing recipes that utilize the healthiest commodity options will enable food service directors to utilize them more effectively.

Technical Assistance and Service Equipment

We support the technical assistance topics proposed in the rule, such as updating USDA menu planning resources, providing guidance materials on fruits, vegetables, and whole grain foods, updating the Child Nutrition Database, and participation in public forums.

We are pleased that USDA has provided resources for school food service equipment for the first time in over two decades. The Institute of Medicine has concluded that schools may need assistance purchasing equipment to meet the new requirements, such as steamers and microwave ovens to replace deep fryers and fruit and vegetable preparation sinks.

We urge USDA to begin intensive training and technical assistance efforts to help schools implement the updated school meal standards as soon as possible.

Recognizing that healthy food only benefits children if they eat it, we suggest that Food and Nutrition Services include guidance on food presentation, marketing, and nutrition education, as these are essential for ensuring that students actually consume the nutritious items offered. This could include providing schools with examples of strategies to engage students, such as student advisory councils, student taste tests, or voting for menu options.

We also recommend that Food and Nutrition Services provide strategies for good financial management to offset any added food costs such as inventory management, portion control, commodity utilization, advanced menu planning, seasonal purchasing, and collaborative purchasing.


We support the proposed implementation schedule to begin full implementation of the new meal standard in the school year 2012-2013, with the whole grain requirements and sodium reduction targets phased in over time. It’s time for all school children to have access to healthier school meals every day.

Thank you for your effort to improve the health of schools and students across the nation, and thank you for your consideration of our recommendations.



Jean McMurray, Co-Chair
Executive Director
Worcester County Food Bank
Dennis Irish, Co-Chair
Vice President
Government and Community Relations
Vanguard Health Systems/Saint Vincent Hospital
Steve Fisher
Executive Director
Regional Environmental Council
Ann Flynn
Director of Community Impact
United Way of Central MA
Walter Spence
Executive Director
Jeremiah’s Inn
Paulette LaCoste
Director of Family and Community Development
Pernet Family Health Service
Toni Maguire
President and CEO
Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center
Lynne Man
Resident, Lunenburg, MA
Hunger-Free & Healthy Project
Worcester, MA
Mayor Joseph O’Brien
City of Worcester, MA