Congress has approved and President Barack Obama (D) has signed a bipartisan agricultural spending bill (H.R. 2112) that will block or delay regulations aimed at making school lunches healthier.

Signed into law on November 18, 2011, the bill will, among other things, prohibit the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from limiting starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, to two servings a week and will continue to allow two tablespoons of tomato paste to count as a vegetable. It will also require further study of USDA’s long-term sodium reduction requirements that would reduce by half the amount of sodium in school meals over the next 10 years.

Although some lawmakers claim that the bill will prevent costly regulations and provide school districts greater flexibility in improving the quality of school meals, critics assert that it will keep schools from serving an array of vegetables while allowing foods such as french fries to remain regular menu items. “It’s a shame that Congress seems more interested in protecting industry than protecting children’s health,” said Center for Science in the Public Interest Policy Director Margo Wootan in a November 15, 2011, statement. “At a time when child nutrition and childhood obesity are national health concerns, Congress should be supporting USDA and school efforts to serve healthier school meals, not undermining them.”

In a related development, Congress increased the Food and Drug Administration’s budget by an extra $50 million to help implement the Food Safety Modernization Act and bioterrorism countermeasures. The bill appropriates $334 million more than the House approved in June. See Associated Press, November 15, 2011; Food Safety News, November 16, 2011.