THE U.S. Senate debate over the farm bill will include a focus on one of the program’s central efforts, school nutrition. A proposed pilot program to add legumes to school-cafeteria menus is an appropriate addition.

A worthy amendment by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., would authorize the U.S. Department of Agriculture to spend $10 million on peas, lentils, chickpeas and beans for use by subsidized school-meal programs.

Nutrition and good health are one way the proposal benefits the public. Legumes are an inexpensive source of protein, fiber, potassium and nutrients for schools more focused these days on nutrition.

Greater effort on school nutrition is an appropriate response to the growing numbers of children who eat their most regular meals at school.

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The Northwest agricultural economy is the second big winner in this proposal. Washington is the top chickpea grower in the nation and third in pea and lentil production.

Those crops were valued at nearly $130 million in 2011 — up from $5 million roughly a decade ago.

Previous iterations of the farm bill have successfully used food subsidies to encourage changes in school meals.

The 2008 Whole Grains Pilot Project introduced whole-grain pancakes and tortillas to schools after the USDA purchased 5 million pounds of the products for distribution.

Federal food subsidies encourage schools to make the shift to healthier menus. Dearborn Park Elementary School in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood is already incorporating peas and chickpeas in its menu. Around 85 percent of Dearborn Park’s students qualify for subsidized meals.

If Cantwell’s proposal is approved, the pilot would run through 2017. Success would be measured by how much it improved nutrition in school meals and how much of these foods students ate.