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USDA Rejects GOP Demand to Undo New School Meal Guidelines

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The Slow Cook has learned that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will not back away from proposed guidelines for more expensive school food despite demands from Republican lawmakers that the agency eliminate any requirements that would increase the cost of the federally subsidized school meals program.

The GOP-controlled House Appropriations Committee recently attached language to a funding measure for agriculture programs directing the USDA to rewrite the proposed school meal guidelines so that they do not create any additional costs. The USDA has estimated that the proposed guidelines as currently written [PDF], calling for much larger servings of vegetables and whole grains and less salt, would require schools to cook more food from scratch and would raise the cost of a subsidized lunch by 15 cents, breakfast by more than 50 cents. The result would be some $7 billion in additional expenses over five years, to be paid mostly by state and local governments that are still reeling from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

But the USDA believes the appropriations language cannot undo the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act approved by Congress last December, which mandated new meal guidelines. The guidelines were the result of years-long study by the Institute of Medicine. USDA officials consider them to be "science based," and do not intend to rewrite them in response to what they see as an arbitrary and perhaps politically motivated move by conservative lawmakers.

The proposed guidelines recently underwent a public comment period that generated some 130,000 responses. The USDA in coming months may modify the guidelines. They could be in place as early as fall 2012.