Department of Agriculture standards for school meals haven't been upgraded since the mid-1990s. With no regulations for reduced sodium and increased whole grains, school meal standards aren't even on par with current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the federal government's advice on good dietary habits published every five years.

South Huntington food service director Charlie McTiernan said the USDA, which oversees the national school lunch program, should update standards for the food it supplies to school districts -- for example, chicken reprocessed into chicken nuggets.

"Tyson is not going to change their practice," he said, "just because 60 school lunch directors from Long Island demand it."

The USDA has contracted with the Institute of Medicine -- a private nongovernmental organization that provides advice on health issues to policy-makers, government agencies and others -- for suggestions on updating the standards. But it could be after 2010 before any rules go into effect, said Kate Houston, a USDA deputy undersecretary.

The agency distributes free food monthly to 100,000 schools nationwide, food it buys as surplus from farmers. Houston said USDA commodities make up 15 percent to 20 percent of a school meal.

Schools pay a minimal warehousing fee -- about $2 per case -- for commodities valued at up to $50-$60 per case. Records from the 2007-08 school year show Long Island schools favored processed, sliced yellow cheese. Meatless canned spaghetti sauce came in second. Beef and chicken products also ranked high, as did potatoes.

Those preferences are common across the state.

"You probably will never see schools say no to beef and cheese," said Thomas Osterhout, director of the state Office of General Services' division of food distribution and warehousing. "It's expensive stuff they use all the time."

Osterhout oversees a network of warehouses where USDA commodities are delivered. A newly constructed Brentwood facility houses Long Island's USDA commodities, replacing one in Central Islip.

A large district could contract with a trucking company to transport the commodities while a smaller one might send a custodian in a pickup truck, Osterhout said.

Houston said the USDA has improved its offerings over time. All canned fruit is now packed in juice, water or light syrup. Heavy syrup hasn't been used for 10 years, she said. Butter hasn't been offered since 1997 and beef patties' fat content is 10 percent.

Those involved in school food service say the USDA should provide more subsidies to fruit and vegetable farmers.

"They're telling us to make food healthier, yet they're supporting the wrong kind of farmers," McTiernan said. "They're not helping us while they're helping farmers."

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