The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s oversight of school lunch programs could expand to include all food sold in schools — from a la carte fast foods on the lunch line to candy bars sold at student-run “stores” and soda in vending machines.

The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2009 would put foods sold in formats that compete with school feeding programs under the umbrella of the USDA.

USDA's reach into schools may stretch

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the senate committee on agriculture, nutrition and forestry, introduced the bill this spring. It’s one of manycomponents of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, which is up for consideration this fall.

Harkin addressed the bill’s status on July 7 at the confirmation hearing for Kevin Concannon, the proposed undersecretary of agriculture for food, nutrition and consumer services.

Alexis Steines, public affairs associate for the Alexandria, Va.-based School Nutrition Association, said the bill would provide opportunities for produce companies.

However, it seems unlikely that a new reauthorization act will be in place by the time the former one expires Sept. 30.

“I’m not sure whether we’ll see something by September,” Steines said July 8. “Congress recesses in August, so they either do the entire thing in the next three weeks or during the month of September.”

Health care legislation will the hot issue in the House and Senate this summer, with Sen. Harkin playing a key role in the debate, according to media reports.

“I can tell you it won’t be this month,” Harkin said about the school nutrition bill on July 7, according to Reuters news service. He said health care reform and the appropriations bills would take precedence.

“Once health care reform is done we expect Congress to take up child nutrition,” said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

DiSogra said the association supports the bill, because it provides opportunities for the fresh produce industry.

“Think about the vending piece,” DiSogra said. “All these value-added items that the industry has been spending time developing are going to be great for school stores and vending.”

DiSogra said Harkin is an advocate in promoting healthful lifestyles by increasing fruit and vegetable consumption.

“This coincides with all the work he did to get the fruit and vegetable program expanded on the farm bill,” DiSogra said. “This is the second part of that.”

The bill doesn’t propose a standard, but would give USDA that task. Once the bill is approved and that happens, that standard would turn into a proposed rule, which would have an open comment period before it became a final rule.

“This process will take a couple of years,” DiSogra said.

Another supporting piece to the bill is a report by the Institute of Medicine that Congress directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to undertake in 2007.

The report concluded that federally reimbursable school nutrition programs should be the main source of nutrition at school. When competitive foods are available, the report suggested that those foods should consist of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nonfat or low-fat milk and dairy products.

“The USDA will likely have to use that report when reviewing this legislation,” DiSogra said.

Some states already have limits on what foods can be served in schools. Connecticut offers monetary incentives to schools that limit junk food.

In 2004, Texas banned foods of minimal nutritional value, including treats for birthday parties. The rules were amended following a backlash and cupcakes or cookies are allowed, but only as part of a classroom birthday event or at a school-designated function.