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USDA Meat Inspections Saved at Expense of School Kitchen Upgrades

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When the meat lobby hacked the sequester last month, they got their way in part because the U.S. Department of Agriculture cut spending on a program to upgrade kitchen equipment in public schools.

The Agriculture Department and pretty much every other federal agency suffered a 5 percent, across-the-board cut last month. While the Education Department was firm that there was no discretion in how those cuts would be applied, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was less decided.

Vilsack insisted that the cuts would mean that federal meat inspectors would be unable to work the Washington Post reported, forcing him to shut down the meat-production industry nationwide for 11 days.

"The problem is, as soon as you take an inspector off the floor, that plant shuts down," Vilsack said at an agriculture conference. Meat could become scarce, he suggested.

An alarmed Senate wrote an exception into the rules that said the cuts had to be applied evenly to all domestic spending. But in the process of saving the meat-inspection service, the USDA took money from a program that hadn't been funded in several years and pays for upgrades to school kitchens.

"There's obviously a huge need" for the school kitchen upgrades, said Jessica Donze Black, the director of the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project. Her evidence? When $100 million in grant money for schools was offered as a part of the 2009 economic stimulus program, USDA was swamped with $630 million in requests from schools.

And those upgrades have only become more critical with the adoption of new standards for school meals the USDA put into place this school year that require schools to serve more fruits and vegetables and whole grains and cut the salt, fat, and calories in meals.

The USDA had budgeted a mere $35 million for new kitchen equipment and tools, Donze Black said, but it's not as small as it sounds.

"A very small grant can go a long way," she said, noting how schools can install salad bars in school cafeterias for just a few thousand dollars.

The USDA raid didn't leave the grant program cupboard entirely bare, Donze Black said. In the continuing resolution signed by President Barack Obama that keeps the government running through September, USDA left $10 million untouched.

Donze Black calls that her own little Silver Linings Playbook moment.

"That's $10 million more than we've had in past years and something that we hope to build on moving forward."

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