Showdown looms in House over public school lunches

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The department is currently sifting through 160,000 comments to its proposed standards, which are based on guidelines from the Institute of Medicine and other sources. USDA has indicated it wants schools to begin purchasing in line with new standards by the end of this year to be ready for the 2012/2013 school year.

Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee added language to the agriculture spending bill that would require USDA to start the process from scratch.

"The Committee urges restraint and practical timelines for implementing new national nutrition standards in the school breakfast and lunch programs," reads the section that Woolsey wants to strike. "As many of the representatives in states and local school districts have cautioned, an overly aggressive implementation schedule and unrealistic demands on changes in nutrient content can lead to burdensome costs, estimated to be about $7 billion over 5 years. Therefore, the Committee directs (USDA's Food and Nutrition Service) to issue a new proposed rule that would not require an increase in the cost of providing schools meals."

The proposed standards would increase the cost of school breakfasts by 50 cents and school lunches by 14 cents per person per day, according to the USDA. The school nutrition act that the president signed into law earlier this year increased federal spending per student by only 12 cents per student per day for both meals.

The frozen food industry supports defeat of the Woolsey amendment. Its main concerns are that the standards: limit starchy vegetable (such as white potatoes and corn) servings to one cup per person per week; downgrades the nutritional value of tomato sauce, making pizzas a much less attractive offering for school districts; and restricts frozen fruits with added sugar.

Corey Henry, the vice-president for communications for the American Frozen Food Institute, said the USDA would most likely have to endorse its products if it's barred from raising school meal costs. 

"There aren't a whole lot of options that can deliver the nutritional quality school districts want and the financial flexibility they need," he said.