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Congress keeps pizza and french fries on school lunch menus

First grader Christina Muse takes a bite into a slice of pizza in the school cafeteria during lunch October 15, 2002 at North Hampton School in North Hampton, N.H.

Kai Ryssdal: Score one for the folks who sell frozen pizzas and french fries to schools. They've convinced Congress to put the kibosh on stricter school lunch standards.

The Department of Agriculture had proposed some new rules aimed at fighting childhood obesity. But House and Senate negotiators stripped 'em out of a spending bill they're working on. Seems they didn't want to give pizza and potatoes a bad name.

Marketplace's Sarah Gardner reports.


Sarah Gardner: The USDA's idea for improving school lunches basically came down to this: fewer potatoes, less salt, more whole grains -- and no, two tablespoons of tomato paste doesn't count as a vegetable. But those are fightin' words to the companies that collectively earn billions every year selling to school cafeterias.

Corey Henry at the American Frozen Food Institute says that tomato paste on your kids' slice of lunchroom pizza?

Corey Henry: Tomato paste is a very nutrient-dense food product. It is rich in Vitamin A, Vitamin D...

Remind you of when the Reagan administration argued ketchup was a vegetable? Healthy food advocate Margo Wootan says frozen pizza and french fry companies, as well as the salt and potato industries, have aggressively lobbied Congress against the USDA's proposal.

Margo Wootan: And they have put the interests of business before the interests of our children's health.

According to the New York Times, the industry's spent over $5.5 million to fight the changes. But Big Food has a big stake in keeping the status quo. Minnesota-based Schwan, the largest provider of frozen pizza to U.S. schools, earns $750 million a year selling food to schools and other institutions. But advocates like Wootan say to those companies, this fight wasn't just about the food sold in schools.

Wootan: They are cultivating a pattern of eating that they hope children will continue throughout the rest of their lifetime.

And continue feeding corporate revenue streams as well.

I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk.

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