By Philip Brasher

AP Farm Writer

WASHINGTON (AP)--The government wants to put more soy and less meat in federally subsidized school lunches in hope of cutting the fat. The question is whether kids will still eat them.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which approved yogurt as a meat substitute in 1997, is expected to decide early next year whether to drop its restrictions on how much soy can be used in meals. Under current rules, soy only can be a food additive and only in amounts of less than 30%.

In addition to allowing meatless entrees--tofu-stuffed ravioli is one menu possibility--the change also would let schools increase the amount of soy that they blend into burgers, tacos and other fare.

Market research sponsored by the United Soybean Board indicated the 26 million children who participate in the school lunch program would accept soy products.

Kids, however, are notoriously finicky consumers, said Lincoln Pierce, director of nutrition programs for the Grand Junction, Colo., schools.

"If you tell kids there's soy in it, they don't seem to like it as well," Pierce said. "In blind tests they approve of it, but their heads haven't caught up with their taste buds."

President Reagan's budget crunchers tried to make tofu a meat substitute nearly two decades ago--at the same time they tried to reclassify ketchup as a vegetable--but they beat a hasty retreat when the idea became a lightning rod for opponents of his spending cuts. USDA officials deny their motive now is to save money, arguing instead that soy is a good source of protein.

"Its time has come," Shirley Watkins, USDA's undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said this week. "I think people are more receptive than they would have been five or 10 years ago."

USDA approved yogurt as a meat substitute in 1997.

Livestock producers have expressed concern about the move, but schools like it because they are having trouble complying with limits the government imposed in 1994 on the fat content of meals. And for the fast-growing soy industry, the $6 billion school lunch program offers a vast new market and a way to introduce families to the expanding array of new, better-tasting products developed in recent years.

Schools have cut the amount of cheese in pizzas and the number of meat balls they serve with spaghetti, but they still struggle to stay under USDA's weekly fat limit. Some have tried offering beef patties made with prune puree, only to have kids turn up their noses at what became known around the lunchroom as "prune burgers."

Livestock producers argue that children won't get sufficient protein or enough iron and zinc if they eat less meat, and they're also worried that a high soy content will give meat a bad reputation.

"If we're going to have soy-type proteins in these products they ought to be edible, so people don't get a bad experience that will relate into a bad beef experience," said Chandler Keys of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

A standard soyburger, which contains no meat, would have three grams of fat--compared to 16 in a beef patty-- and a significant amount of calcium. But the soyburger would have a third less protein than the beef patty and less iron.

Celeste Peggs, executive director of West Virginia's Child Nutrition Office, said she worries that more children will become anemic if schools cut back on meat. Iron-rich foods other than meat, such as spinach, "are not always the popular food items among children," she said.

USDA officials play down those concerns, saying that children will get plenty of those nutrients from other sources if their meals are balanced.

Vegetarians and animal rights activists have flooded USDA with letters and e-mail messages praising the proposal, but the change may have an impact they don't want. Allowing a higher soy content will make it easier for schools to keep meat on their menus, said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute.

"There is every reason to believe the proposed rule will perpetuate the role of meat and poultry in the school food programs, not threaten it," she said.

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