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Lobbyists Want Fries And Pizza To Stay In School

Pizzas in the lunchroom at a Chicago high school.
Tim Boyle
Getty Images
Pizzas in the lunchroom at a Chicago high school.

Some student food favorites are under attack in Washington. The Agriculture Department has released new standards for school nutrition and published them for public comment. Speaking right up are lobbyists for the food industry.

The standards, the first new version since 1994, would limit starchy vegetables to two servings a week. That guideline covers corn, peas, lima beans and a hot item in the serving line — french fries.

But the CEO of the National Potato Council, John Keeling, says not so fast.

"The products that are in schools today basically are not your daddy's french fries," Keeling told NPR.

Keeling has had the potato industry on full lobbyist alert ever since the standards were proposed. Like other industry lobbyists, Keeling uses the yes-but argument. Yes, it's good to fight obesity. But "you won't solve obesity on the backs of a single vegetable," he says, "and you won't solve it on the diet in the schools."

The potato council reached out to members of Congress with this viewpoint and helped them send pointed letters to the USDA.

A potato state senator, Republican Susan Collins of Maine, carried the message into a Capitol Hill hearing, along with a potato and a head of lettuce. She held a vegetable high in each hand.

"One medium white potato has nearly twice as much vitamin C as this entire head of iceberg lettuce," she said.

Potato advocates say today's fries are more healthful than in the olden days, with way less actual frying.

But the Center for Science in the Public Interest says fries still aren't healthful, and what's worse, they lure kids away from other vegetables.

The center's nutrition policy director, Margo Wootan says, "When the kids are offered french fries versus carrots or green beans, too often the kids choose french fries."

And that's not the only dish up for debate. The USDA would downgrade another lunchroom staple — pizza.

It's like that old story 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: "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."

That's a problem, he says. School nutritionists would have to find pizza substitutes that fit the guidelines, and that the kids will eat.

The proposals would bump up costs about 12 percent. The school meal program is about 90 percent federally funded.

Obviously, changing the school nutrition program would affect the food suppliers. Industry lobbyists aren't so eager to talk about that.

But Wootan is. She says feeding school kids is a long-term marketing opportunity "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."

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

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.