IDFA was invited to participate last week in two congressional staff briefings that focused on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Commodity Foods Program and its effect on the National School Lunch program. The first briefing was sponsored by Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), new chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and the second was hosted by the House Education and Labor Committee, chaired by Representative George Miller (D-CA).
The briefings were designed to increase congressional staff awareness of how USDA is making a wider variety of foods available to schools with less fat and sodium and more whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Approximately 15 percent of all foods purchased through the National School Lunch Program are procured centrally by USDA based on orders they receive from states and school districts. In 2008, 132 million pounds of cheese were purchased for schools at a cost of $276 million. USDA purchases mozzarella, cheddar and processed cheese types, including blended, light and reduced-fat varieties.
Dr. Richard Merrill, director of research and development for Leprino Foods Company, spoke on behalf of IDFA. Other speakers represented USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, the School Nutrition Association and the California Food Policy Advocates.
Dr. Merrill's presentation covered the nutritional importance of cheese and dairy products in school lunches, noting that "children's consumption of dairy products in school may constitute the difference between getting enough calcium or not." Dr. Merrill also explained that many cheese companies now sell USDA cheeses lower in fat and sodium with the functional characteristics of their full fat counterparts. Regardless of the type of cheese used in schools, the school meals must meet USDA's meal plan guidelines and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
At the briefing, cheese pizza made with light mozzarella cheese and white whole wheat crust was available for tasting. The pizza's nutritional profile showed a significant reduction in both fat and sodium levels compared to most traditional school pizzas.
"The key to improved nutrition in schools is not to ban food categories that are perceived negatively, but to set the targets for nutritional profiles and let food companies innovate to help schools meet those targets," said Merrill. "We are firm believers that school lunches must serve foods that children enjoy or they will opt to go off campus and, most likely, will consume less healthy foods."
Congress is expected to allow a short-term extension of current programs this fall and begin full reauthorization of the USDA Child Nutrition programs early next year.
For questions about the briefings or Child Nutrition Reauthorization, contact Ruth Saunders, IDFA vice president of policy and legislative affairs, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 220-3553.