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by Debbie Lehmann

Deborah Lehmann is an editor of School Lunch Talk, a blog about school food. She is currently studying economics and public policy at Brown University and joins us to weigh in on the breaking news that Senator Harkin has stepped down from chairing the Senate Ag Committee to chair the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee–news that Grist’s Tom Philpott calls “dismal.”

Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark), who is taking over as the chair of the Senate Ag Committee, has just introduced a new child nutrition bill. This one is called the Healthy Food for Healthy Schools Act of 2009, and it’s supposed to “improve the purchase and processing of healthful commodities for use in school meal programs.”

The text requires the secretary of agriculture to issue model food product specifications and practices to schools, state agencies and processors to ensure that foods served in school meals are in line with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The bill also requires the secretary to conduct a study on the quantity and quality of nutrition information available to schools regarding commodities and other food service products, and to submit a report to Congress with legislative recommendations. In addition, the bill requires the USDA to purchase “the widest variety of healthful foods that reflect the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

As far as improving the commodity program, this legislation will help somewhat. Right now, most schools use their commodity dollars for meat and dairy products, and the USDA spends just a small percentage of its budget on fresh fruits and vegetables. Requiring the secretary of agriculture to make purchases that are in line with the Dietary Guidelines will ensure that he considers health, and not just farmers’ financial health, when he buys up foods for schools. That means cafeterias will probably get increased access to fresh produce through the USDA.

But improving commodity offerings isn’t the end of the story. Upgrading facilities and equipment goes hand-in-hand with upgrading the nutritional content of food products. Faced with ill-equipped kitchens and high labor costs, cafeterias outsource about half of their commodities these days to manufacturers, who process their government chicken into nuggets and their government fruit into sherbet. The USDA can offer the most nutritious foods possible, but if schools don’t have the means to cook those foods, processed fast-food fare will continue to dominate menus. I’d like to see some legislation that funds the renovation of cafeteria kitchens, or that creates a School Lunch Corps to cook in schools nationwide. Paired with Lincoln’s bill, that would really revolutionize the commodity program.