Misguided Moves Thwart Healthier School Lunch

Congress Scraps Limits on French Fries, Keeps Pizza a Vegetable


No one would mistake French fries and pizza for a healthy meal. Yet Congress has overturned a plan that would limit French fries in school lunch. And it’s scrapped or stalled other healthy menu changes that would boost vegetables and lower salt.

The final version of an agricultural spending bill, passed by Congress and signed into law in late November 2011, has watered down a comprehensive U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposal for improving school lunches. The USDA’s original plan was based on sound science and could have helped turn around this country’s obesity and diabetes epidemics. But the guidelines came under fire from food industry lobbyists, among them, potato growers, frozen pizza makers that supply schools, and the salt industry.

The USDA’s proposal would have capped the amount of potatoes and starchy vegetables that school lunches could serve at one cup per week—the equivalent of a medium baked potato—and promoted a wider variety of vegetables, especially dark green and orange varieties, such as broccoli, spinach, and carrots. (1) It would have also changed the serving size for tomato paste, bumping it up from 2 tablespoons to ½ cup—a change that meant a pizza slice, with its dab of tomato paste, could no longer count towards the school lunch vegetable requirement. The changes were part of a long-awaited overhaul of the nutrition standards in U.S. school meal programs, based on recommendations from an expert panel at the Institute of Medicine (IOM). (2)

Congress’ new wording in the funding bill scrapped the weekly limit on starchy vegetables. It also spelled out that the USDA must stick with the status quo on tomato products, meaning that the tomato paste on a pizza slice can still count as a vegetable.

These changes have been met with harsh criticism from nutrition and public health advocates, and with good reason: Potatoes, which are high in fast-digested carbohydrate, seem to be a particular culprit for weight gain and diabetes. (3, 4) Children eat plenty of potatoes but don’t eat enough dark green and orange vegetables. (2) Continuing to allow unlimited potatoes and pizza sauce to count as vegetables won’t do much to achieve the IOM’s goal of boosting children’s vegetable intake, and ultimately, improving their health.

In addition to backpedaling on potatoes and pizza, Congress put the brakes on planned sodium reductions in school lunch, “until the [USDA] Secretary certifies that the Department has reviewed and evaluated relevant scientific studies and data relevant to the relationship of sodium reductions to human health.” Yet this hesitancy does not make scientific sense: More than 90 percent of school children already get more than recommended amounts of sodium each day. (2) Though the salt industry lobbies mightily to the contrary, there’s ample evidence that high sodium intakes contribute to high blood pressure, even in children and teens, (5) and to heart disease in adults, and that curbing sodium lowers cardiovascular disease and death rates over the long term.

Congress also pushed back on the USDA’s plan to require more whole grains, saying that the USDA needs to define what whole grains are before it can issue such a requirement.

In a statement to the Associated Press, a USDA spokeswoman, Courtney Rowe, said the agency will still work to improve the nutritional quality of school lunch:  “While it’s unfortunate that some members of Congress continue to put special interests ahead of the health of America’s children, USDA remains committed to practical, science-based standards for school meals.”


1.U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs: A Proposed Rule by the Food and Nutrition Service on 01/13/2011. Federal Register. 2011;76:2494–2570.

2. Institute of Medicine. School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press; 2009.

3. Halton TL, Willett WC, Liu S, Manson JE, Stampfer MJ, Hu FB. Potato and french fry consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes in women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006;83:284-90.

4. Mozaffarian D, Hao T, Rimm EB, Willett WC, Hu FB. Changes in diet and lifestyle and long-term weight gain in women and men. N Engl J Med. 2011;364:2392-404.

5. He FJ, Marrero NM, MacGregor GA. Salt and blood pressure in children and adolescents. J Hum Hypertens. 2008; 22:4–11.