Lobbyists Want Fries And Pizza To Stay In School Those lunchroom faves may be too popular for their own good. The USDA is proposing guidelines that would limit their availability to kids at school. Potato and frozen food lobbyists say their products are unfairly blamed for obesity.

Lobbyists Want Fries And Pizza To Stay In School

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There's a food fight on Capitol Hill over the federal standards for school nutrition. New revised standards have been in the works for six years and the Agriculture Department recently published them for public comment.

As NPR's Peter Overby reports, some of the proposals don't sit well with the food industry, and some House Republicans want the department to start over.

PETER OVERBY: One hot item in the serving line and on Capitol Hill: French fries.

Mr. JOHN KEELING (CEO, National Potato Council): The products that are in schools today, basically, are not your daddy's French fries.

OVERBY: That's the CEO of the National Potato Council, John Keeling. He's had the potato industry on full lobbyists alert for the first revision of the school nutrition standards since 1994.

USDA would put a new limit on starchy vegetables - that is French fries and other potatoes - plus corn, green beans and lima beans. The limit would be one cup - that's two servings per week.

Like other industry lobbyist, Keeling uses the yes-but argument. Yes, it's good to fight obesity. But...

Mr. KEELING: The obesity thing, you won't solve obesity on the backs of a single vegetable. You won't solve it on the diet in the schools.

OVERBY: So, the Potato Council reached out to members of Congress, it helped them send pointed letters to USDA. This spring, potato state Senator Susan Collins of Maine carried the message into a hearing, along with a potato and a head of lettuce. She held a vegetable high in each hand.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): One medium white potato has nearly twice as much vitamin C as this entire head of iceberg lettuce.

OVERBY: Potato advocates say today's fries are healthier than in the olden days, with way less actual frying. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest says they're still not healthy, and what's worse, they lure kids away from other vegetables.

Margo Wootan is the center's nutrition policy director.

Dr. MARGO WOOTAN (Center for Science in the Public Interest): When the kids are offered French fries versus carrots or green beans, too often the kids choose French fries.

OVERBY: And that's not the only dish up for debate. USDA would downgrade another lunchroom staple, pizza. It's like that old thing about ketchup. Right now, the tomato sauce on a frozen pizza slice counts as a full serving of vegetables. The proposed new standards would end that.

Corey Henry of the American Frozen Food Institute has an ominous forecast.

Mr. COREY HENRY (American Frozen Food Institute): You would likely see a dramatic reduction in the amount of frozen pizza or pizza in general that you're able to serve in school cafeterias.

OVERBY: That's a problem, he says. Kids like pizza, and school nutritionists would have to find an acceptable substitute. That would add to costs which are projected to go up about 12 percent. The program is about 90 percent federally funded.

Obviously, changing the school nutrition program would affect the food suppliers, too. Industry lobbyists aren't so eager to talk about that, but Margo Wootan is. She says feeding school kids is a long-term marketing opportunity.

Dr. WOOTAN: So they're used to eating certain kinds of foods, so the kids will want those foods outside of school and as they grow up.

OVERBY: More battles will be fought over these revisions, battles that could take months or even years. Meanwhile, children who were in first grade when USDA started working on this are now finishing up sixth grade.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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