kidCheer up, kid — the chicken nuggets and tater tots are sticking around. In a move that could signal a serious fault line in the argument for more vegetables as a tonic for childhood obesity, drafters of “Healthy Schools” legislation pending before the D.C. Council have scuttled a push for additional produce in school meals after school officials said they cannot guarantee their kitchens can prepare vegetables that kids will actually eat and not throw in the trash.

“More vegetables” has become a mantra of advocates for healthier school food, including First Lady Michelle Obama, whose White House vegetable garden created a sensation. The “Healthy Schools” bill, scheduled to come up for a hearing next week, had embraced standards proposed by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) that would require larger servings of fruits, vegetables — especially green and orange vegetables and legumes — and whole grains as part of an upgraded school nutrition package designed to bring school meals in line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The IOM panel that made the recommendations, working at the behest of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, warned, however, that requiring more produce and whole grains would drive up the cost of school meals, and that there could be no guarantee that children would eat them. The requirement for heftier vegetable servings was dropped from the “Healthy Schools” bill after D.C. school officials asserted they did not want to spend precious resources on food that would only end up being thrown away.

“We heard from many that if schools are serving mushy, flavorless green beans that students are simply throwing away, that doubling the portion size would simply double the amount of mushy, flavorless green beans that are thrown away,” said an aide to Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), author of the bill. “Instead, many have said that we should focus our energy and money first on improving the quality of the foods being served before we consider mandating an increase in portion sizes.”

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Advocates of farm to school programs here and across the country contend that schools can serve meals that are more healthful and appealing by using more locally grown produce. But vegetables traditionally are a hard sell in school cafeterias. The foods most favored by children are pizza, all forms of potatoes, and corn, in that order. As I found while spending a week in the kitchen of my daughter’s elementary school here in the District, vegetables typically are cooked to death and rejected by kids. A 1996 nationwide survey of school food service managers by the U.S. General Accounting Office revealed that 42 percent of cooked vegetables — and 30 percent of raw vegetables and salad — ended up in the trash.

The move to eliminate additional vegetables from “Healthy Schools” legislation suggests that mandating better school meals may not work without funding improvements to school kitchens. In fact, the trend in school food service for years has been in just the opposite direction — to reduce labor costs, which represent half of food service costs, by hiring less skilled kitchen workers who do not work enough hours to qualify for benefits. Frequently, school kitchens are staffed by “warmer-uppers” whose sole skill is being able to re-heat foods that have been pre-cooked in distant factories and shipped frozen. Sensitive perishables such as vegetables suffer as a result.

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“If we’re going to win Michele Obama’s war on obesity and if her ‘Let’s Move’ campaign is going to be successful, then we need to ensure healthy delicious food. We need funds to pay for cooking kitchens, to train staff, and to market to kids to eat the food,” said Ann Cooper, noted school food activist and director of nutrition for schools in Boulder, Colorado.

“That seems like nonsense about kids not eating the veggies … of course they won’t if it looks and tastes like cardboard,” said Debra Eschmeyer, director of the National Farm to School Network. “Kids will eat fresh tasty veggies if they have a chance to access them and learn about them. I didn’t believe it until I saw it with my own eyes hundreds of times. Kids will eat chard, broccoli, beets, etc. and love it when they have a chance to grow it and have a real learning experience.”

The IOM report suggested there might be funds for school kitchen upgrades in the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” [PDF] program instituted last year by USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. Merrigan has said that nearly $1 billion in federal grant funds used in the past for building rural fire stations, hospitals and community centers could be allocated to food-related projects, such as building storage facilities for locally grown produce, food markets and school kitchens. But schools would need to apply for the money.

In a separate development yesterday, legislation making its way through the U.S. Senate would provide an additional 6 cents per school meal — something less than $500 million more annually — but that money would be contingent on federally-subsidized meal programs adopting the IOM standards. The School Nutrition Association, representing food service directors across the country, has asked for a minimum increase of 35 cents per meal. But others, such as Cooper, say anything less than $1 a day for each child in the program falls short of what is actually needed.

Still, the retooled “Healthy Schools” legislation sets forth substantial increases in local financial support for school meals, some of which could be used to purchase more vegetables and other healthful ingredients. The bill would provide an additional 10 cents for each breakfast served in D.C. public schools and 10 cents for each lunch, plus a bonus of 5 cents for lunches that include local produce. In addition, the District would fund 50 cents for students who qualify for reduced-price breakfast and lunch, meaning those students would not have to pay for their meals at all.

The bill also provides for construction of a local “super kitchen” where city schools could store and process local produce. The kitchen could also house a greenhouse, bakery, or other features and provide a culinary training center.

Significantly, the “Healthy Schools” bill still does not identify funding to pay for the improvements it outlines, but Cheh has vowed to find it.