(March 6, 3:12 p.m.) Panelists at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing provided a steady drumbeat in support of more control over the nutrition content in food served in schools.

Several witnesses at the March 4 hearing on child nutrition were strong in their support of more fruits and vegetables, said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

“What we heard over and over again is that schools want to make their meals consistent with dietary guidelines and they want to serve more fruits and vegetables,” she said.

School officials also pleaded for more money to accomplish that goal.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and chairman of the committee, said overweight and obesity rates have reached epidemic levels and demanded that lawmakers take a preventive approach, even if it is more costly.

About two-thirds of elementary school lunches exceed dietary standards for saturated fat, he said, supporting more nutritious options.

“That means more low- and no-fat milk, leaner meats, whole grain products, and fruits and vegetables, particularly fresh,” Harkin said.

Fruit, vegetables and whole grains tend to cost more than alternatives, but he said the White House budget is a hopeful sign. President Barack Obama’s budget proposes an additional $1billion per year in funding for child nutrition programs.

“This is a strong indication of how serious the new administration is about ending childhood hunger and teaching healthy eating habits at an early age so that kids are more likely to grow up to be healthy adults,” he said.

Harkin said Congress must “make good on Obama’s budget by allocating the monies.”

“A significant investment in the child nutrition reauthorization by Congress would be its own down payment on comprehensive health care reform that would acknowledge the very real budget difficulties that school districts, day care centers and other providers face while also ensuring that kids are getting the most balanced, nutritious meals possible,” he said.

Katie Wilson, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based School Nutrition Association, and school nutrition director of Onalaska Public Schools, Onalaska, Wis., said the average cost of producing a school lunch is $2.92. The federal reimbursement, however, is $2.57 for a lunch provided to a child in families with income 130% below the poverty line. Wilson asked lawmakers for a 35 cent-per-meal increase in reimbursement for lunches. She also requested that the reimbursement rate be adjusted for inflation twice a year, rather than once.

She also said that children who qualify for Women Infant and Children vouchers should qualify for free meals.

In other comments, Wilson lobbied for a national wellness policy regulating school nutrition rather than allowing states and districts to have various interpretations of the standard.

“Why would we allow 50 or more different interpretations of the Dietary Guidelines when it comes to the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs?” she asked.

“Children all need the same nutrients — whether in Iowa, Georgia or California,” Wilson said.

Wilson also said the USDA should be able to regulate all foods sold on school campuses so that the foods are consistent with dietary guidelines.

“If it is not, healthy school meals must compete with foods and beverages that are high in fat, sugar and calories and are often available in vending machines or school stores,” she said.