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'Pizza vegetable' controversy is hot potato

A law blocking new regulations of tomato paste, spuds and salt in school meals causes a stir.

November 28, 2011|By Jill U. Adams, Special to the Los Angeles Times

The idea was that by limiting servings of white potatoes — whether baked, mashed, French-fried, hash-browned or tater-totted — as well as corn, lima beans and green peas, students would be encouraged to try a wider array of vegetables, including those in the dark green and orange groups that contain essential nutrients such as folate and beta carotene.

The USDA's own evaluation of school lunches has found that when faced with a choice of vegetables, kids will choose a starchy vegetable 75% of the time, Wootan says. Most often this means French fries, but other white potato forms also are popular.

Who was against the USDA's proposed changes?

Some players in the food industry, including the American Frozen Food Institute, a trade group based in McLean, Va., and Schwan's Food Service Inc., a Marshall, Minn.-based company that supplies frozen pizzas to 75% of U.S. schools.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), from Schwan's home state, wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack extolling the nutritional value of tomato paste. And Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) from big potato-producing states joined with the National Potato Council to fight the limits on starchy vegetables.

In addition to preserving the tomato paste loophole, the bill Obama signed prevents the USDA from limiting servings of starchy vegetables. It also slows the sodium reduction and challenges the USDA to come up with a more precise definition of the term "whole grain" before implementing rules about their use.

What happens now?

The agriculture appropriation bill, signed by the president, is now law, so the current amendments on tomato paste and potato servings are in effect for another year. In the meantime, many schools are moving forward with efforts to improve the lunches they serve.

The Institute of Medicine report included advice to help school districts implement healthful menu changes, says Karen Cullen, a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who served on the committee that wrote the report. But for such changes to have lasting impact, she says, districts must work with schools, students' families and the community players, such as grocery stores.

"If children are being introduced to new foods at school, then schools might offer taste-testing for students and recipes for parents," she suggests. "I've heard anecdotally that parents end up asking for those vegetables their kids have mentioned liking."

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