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Food fight looms in school nutrition legislation

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WASHINGTON — Tomatoes and mozzarella cheese may go great together on the plate, but they could square off against each other this year when Congress revamps the federal school nutrition program.

A California congressman is complaining that the U.S. Department of Agriculture buys far more mozzarella than tomatoes, favoring high-fat dairy products over what he considers healthier foods grown, not surprisingly, in his congressional district.

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., raised that concern with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at a recent hearing on Capitol Hill. The USDA has not indicated any intention to adjust its priorities, and the agency's numbers do not exactly match with Mr. Farr's — but the issue is bound to resurface as lawmakers push for more fresh fruits and vegetables in all federal food programs while fighting childhood obesity.

"The foods that are healthiest are the ones that come from his district," which includes California's Central Coast and the Salinas Valley, the "salad bowl of the world," said Mr. Farr's spokesman, Tom Mentzer.

Why pick on mozzarella? "Because it's a pretty good link to pizza: more carbs, calories, fat, etc.," Mr. Mentzer said.

Tomatoes, nutritious themselves, are a good connection to healthy, low-fat salads, he said.

Cheese, on the other hand, is the biggest part of the dairy industry in New York, and a few plants in the state — Losurdo Foods in Heuvelton, Sorrento Cheese in Buffalo and Empire Cheese in Cuba, for instance — make mozzarella, either fresh or in blocks.

Dairy groups bristle at the notion that milk products make children fat, pointing out that high-sugar foods are big culprits and benefit from much bigger advertising campaigns. And while they do not dispute that the government buys plenty of dairy products for schools — $149 million worth of mozzarella alone in 2008 — they note that much of the cheese is a low-fat variety aimed at meeting U.S. dietary guidelines.

Those guidelines call for three servings of dairy products a day as a source of calcium, said Christopher Galen, a spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation.

The federation, which represents farmer-owned bargaining cooperatives, is not picking a fight, Mr. Galen said, although Mr. Farr appears to be drawing lines.

"We're not arguing that kids shouldn't also increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, but it shouldn't be an either-or proposition," Mr. Galen said.

That Mr. Farr would take a swipe at cheese might seem odd, considering his state is the nation's top milk producer. But it also reflects the great diversity of California's agriculture and a growing taste in Congress for more fresh fruits and vegetables in youngsters' diets.

About half of the mozzarella that goes to the federal school lunch program is used for pizza, said Adriana Zorrilla, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service. School districts send the cheese to companies that make pizza, which sell it back to the schools at a discount, she said.

But federal purchases are only a fraction of the program, she said, because schools have to buy anywhere from 80 percent to 85 percent of the food through the program from the commercial market. And when schools do buy food from the federal government, she said, they choose what they want.

"Schools districts are never required to accept any USDA food item they cannot effectively use or do not want to use," Ms. Zorrilla said.

Mr. Farr complained to Mr. Vilsack that the government spends just $51,000 on fresh tomatoes and $90 million on mozzarella cheese for the program, according to a news report.

That is less than the Food and Nutrition Service reported for the cheese, and Ms. Zorrilla said the program spent $351 million last year on all types of fruits and vegetables.

During the past two decades, she said, the USDA has expanded its offerings of fruits and vegetables and has reduced the sugar and fat in the program's offerings.

More changes could be on the way, even if they are not as extensive as Mr. Farr seeks. The five-year farm bill enacted by Congress last year expanded programs for specialty crops, and lawmakers have been looking for ways to let schools provide more locally grown crops as well.

New York lawmakers applaud those efforts. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has been outspoken on expanding offerings of both dairy products and fruits and vegetables in schools and serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which will draft the school nutrition bill.

She wants to increase funding for programs that bring those products to schools and to provide more locally grown apples and other produce, said a spokeswoman, Bethany Lesser.

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