The legislative push to enable school cafeterias to keep serving pizza and french fries won’t save nearly as much money as some lawmakers have suggested — if any, according to the Agriculture Department.
This week, a group of House and Senate lawmakers crafted an agriculture spending bill that barred the USDA from adopting the Obama administration’s proposal to limit the amount of tomato paste and starchy vegetables in federally funded school meals.
That proposal’s price tag — including the financial burden it would impose on strapped school districts — ranked as one of the top reasons for derailing it.
But on Wednesday, USDA officials said that scrapping the plan to limit tomato paste and starchy vegetables such as potatoes would not reap huge cost savings, and certainly not $7 billion as suggested by the GOP-controlled House Appropriations Committee.
The USDA’s plan to cut back on tomato paste and potatoes is part of a larger proposal to make school meals more nutritious. The USDA has estimated that revamping the entire school meals program would cost $6.8 billion over the next five years, in part because it would involve doubling the amount of fruits and vegetables served.
But barring the USDA from cutting back on tomato paste and starchy vegetables “will have little to no effect on the cost of the new standards” for school meals, said Aaron Lavallee, a USDA spokesman.
The USDA had proposed a one-cup-per-week limit on the amount of white potatoes and other starchy vegetables served to schoolchildren. The proposal also would have nixed the favorable treatment of tomato paste. Currently, one-eighth of a cup of tomato paste is credited with as much nutritional value as a half-cup of vegetables and thus counts as one vegetable serving. In effect, that enables food makers to market pizzas as vegetables.
The USDA wanted to bring tomato paste in line with the standards granted to fruit pastes and purees, such as applesauce.
With a strong push from the food lobby, a group of Senate and House lawmakers agreed to scrap the USDA’s tomato and potato proposal when negotiating an agriculture spending bill. The Senate and House expect to vote on the final spending bill this week.
As the USDA presses forward on finalizing its school meals proposal — without the tomato and potato language — it maintains that it will more than offset the costs associated with its plan by adopting revenue-raising measures.