There's no free "school" lunch

The House of Representatives dealt a blow to childhood obesity warriors on Thursday by passing a bill that abandons proposals that threatened to end the reign of pizza and French fries on federally funded school lunch menus, reports Reuters. The changes, which would have stripped pizza's status as a vegetable and limited how often French fries could be served, stemmed from a 2010 child nutrition law calling on schools to improve the nutritional quality of lunches served to almost 32 million U.S. school children. Another provision bars the USDA from changing the way it credits tomato paste, used in pizza. The change would have required pizza to have at least a half-cup of tomato paste to qualify as a vegetable serving. Current rules, which likely will remain in place, require just two tablespoons of tomato paste.

"It's an important victory," said Corey Henry, spokesman for the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI), which lobbied Congress on behalf of frozen pizza sellers like ConAgra Foods Inc and Schwan Food Co and French fry makers McCain Foods Ltd and J.R. Simplot Co. "Our concern is that the standards would force companies in many respects to change their products in a way that would make them unpalatable to students," Henry said.

Pending Senate approval, beginning in the fall, the 32 million children who eat in the national school breakfast and lunch programs will be served a lot more whole grain -- brown rice, whole-wheat breads and whole-grain pasta, more fruits and vegetables (red, yellow and green leafy), as well as low-sodium protein or legumes under new USDA rules released Wednesday. Federal funding for school meals will depend on compliance.

The new regulations, the first major changes to the $18 billion U.S. school meals program in 15 years, for the first time establishes minimum and maximum calories per meal, which varies by age group. Here are the limits for lunch: Elementary school: 550-650 calories; Middle school: 600-700 calories; and High school: 750-850 calories.

It will also mean a higher grocery bill for schools, by boosting funding by 6 cents per meal to help cover increased costs connected to the new regulations, but that won't come close to the additional 10 cents per lunch, and 27 cents per breakfast, the healthier food is expected to cost schools, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. USDA officials said districts can make up the difference by charging wealthier students more for full-price meals or ensuring that the federal funding isn't spent subsidizing other food sold in vending machines or school stores.

The policy requires schools to offer well-rounded meals that include a range of foods over the course of a week. Only 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice is allowed, but it can only count for up to half of the requirements. In addition, 2 percent milk is out. Only low-fat and nonfat milk will be allowed. The final regulations allow baked potato products, meaning students will continue to enjoy tater tots.