WASHINGTON — Kids will always grab pizza and dessert in the school lunch line, but those items may be healthier in coming school years if Democrats in Congress succeed in toughening rules governing the nation's school lunches.
Legislation approved Wednesday by the Senate Agriculture Committee would allow the Agriculture Department to create new standards for all foods in schools, including vending machine items, to give students healthier meal options. The legislation would spend $4.5 billion more over 10 years for nutrition programs.
New standards are not expected to push popular foods off the cafeteria line completely, just to make them healthier. For example, pizza may be made with whole wheat crust and low-fat mozzarella, while desserts could have fewer calories. Hamburgers could be made with leaner meat, and vending machines could be stocked with less candy and fewer high-calorie sodas.
The legislation would also expand the number of low-income children eligible for free or reduced cost meals, a step Democrats say would help President Barack Obama reach his goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015.
Creation of new standards, which public health advocates have sought for a decade, has unprecedented support from many of the nation's largest food and beverage companies, including Mars Inc. and PepsiCo. The two sides came together on the issue as a heightened interest in nutrition has made it difficult for anyone, especially the companies themselves, to push junk foods in schools.
Still, congressional action is only the first step. Many of the most difficult decisions, including what kinds of foods will be sold and what ingredients may be limited, will be left up to the Agriculture Department.
When New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand offered an amendment to ban artery-clogging trans fats from schools, for example, Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., said Congress should let the Agriculture Department tackle the issue.
"We provide the broad outline, and the department is going to fill in those details," she said. "Once we open the door to trying to dictate trans fats, we are opening the door to try and micromanage other things."
Gillibrand withdrew her amendment and said she would try again on the Senate floor.
The bill would provide a 6 cent increase in reimbursements to schools per meal, the first such increase since 1973, according to Lincoln. Schools would have to show compliance with the national nutrition standards to receive the reimbursement.
Critics have said the bill does not provide enough money to schools to provide healthy lunches to every child that needs one; the Obama administration asked for more than twice as much spending on nutrition programs. The issue has been pushed along by First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign to reduce childhood obesity.
Gillibrand, a Democrat, said the legislation should provide $4 billion every year, instead of $4 billion over 10 years.
"We have a long way to go from 6 cents to 70 cents we need," Gillibrand said of the increase.
Lincoln said she will look for more money but believes the legislation is realistic amid tight federal budgets.
The legislation would also provide money for farm-to-school programs, encouraging schools to buy foods from local farms and grow food gardens on campus. It would be partly paid for by reducing conservation subsidies paid to farmers for using environmentally friendly farming practices.
The House has not acted on new standards. If the government moves quickly, they could be in place for the 2011-2012 school year.