Let Them Eat Fries: School Lunch Reform Squashed
In this society, where premium brands of pet-food abound along with an increasing selection of cookbooks for dogs, one would think feeding children good food would be a priority. And so, it’s a little shocking that the lawmakers of the US won’t support legislation that would replace the slop served in the typical school cafeteria with comparatively nutritional choices. But in fact, Congress just voted to block legislation that would make school lunches a whole lot healthier than they now are.1 The new legislation, which was proposed by the USDA last January, is just too dang expensive to implement, say the legislators, plus, schools shouldn’t tell kids what to eat.
The contested legislation contains such radical innovations as limiting French fry servings to twice a week, reducing the off-the-charts amount of sodium in current school lunches, ensuring that kids get five servings of vegetables a week, and introducing whole grains.
All these provisions got squashed.
Also, an effort to “adjust” pizza’s classification on the lunch menu got nixed in the bill, and so pizza remains categorized as a vegetable, meaning it fulfills one of the 2.5 weekly vegetable servings required in existing school lunch guidelines. Pizza a vegetable? That’s right: it counts because it contains tomato paste. Actually, the blocked legislation would also have counted pizza as a vegetable, but only if it contained at least four tablespoons of tomato paste—twice the amount pizza currently has to have.
And that fact—that the defeated legislation would have considered four tablespoons of tomato paste smeared on white bread a vegetable serving points to the reality that the legislation itself didn’t exactly put forward exemplary nutritional standards. But even the meager nutritional improvements it would have instituted stirred up Congressional ire. According to a statement issued by the House Appropriations Committee, their veto "prevent[s] overly burdensome and costly regulations and provides greater flexibility for local school districts to improve the nutritional quality of meals."
If that comment smacks of double-talk, consider this statement by Kraig Naasz, president of the American Frozen Food Institute: “This agreement [to block the healthy lunch legislation] ensures that nutrient-rich vegetables such as potatoes, corn and peas will remain part of a balanced, healthy diet in federally funded school meals and recognizes the significant amounts of potassium, fiber and vitamins A and C provided by tomato paste, ensuring that students may continue to enjoy healthy meals such as pizza and pasta."
Or how about this statement from the head of the American Potato Council, John Keeling: “This [veto] is an important step for the school districts, parents and taxpayers who would shoulder the burden of USDA’s proposed $6.8 billion school meal regulation that will not increase the delivery of key nutrients.”
Therein you get a clue as to what’s at stake and why Congress seems hell-bent on ensuring that our little ones eat health destroying garbage. Lobbyists from various food growing and selling concerns—the potato industry, the salt industry, and frozen pizza makers -- have been going all-out pressuring lawmakers in order to ensure continuation of the huge profits they enjoy from selling their products to schools. Specifically, ConAgra, Coca-Cola, Del Monte Foods, and makers of frozen pizza like Schwan have raised voices in protest and claimed that the modifications proposed by the USDA go too far in promoting healthy nutrition.2 Yes, it truly is burdensome to require an extra 1.5 tablespoons of tomato paste on a pizza.
As Margo G. Wootan, who directs the Center for Science in the Public Interest points out, “It’s a shame that Congress seems more interested in protecting industry than protecting children’s health. 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 fact, it was concern with the exponential increase in childhood obesity that triggered the Institute of Medicine, a division of the National Academy of Sciences, to initiate school lunch reform efforts in the first place. With 17 percent of all kids now overweight or obese, replacing pizza and fries with other vegetables (assuming pizza is a vegetable, after all) seemed a good idea. According to Tom Vilsack, the head of the Department of Agriculture, the changes would have reduced childhood obesity and thus cut future health care costs, meaning that the cost of the lunch program would be dwarfed in comparison to the cost of dealing with the health problems poor nutrition leads to later.
In a new book called Fed Up with Lunch, Chicago schoolteacher Sarah Wu chronicles her year eating school lunches.3 According to Wu, day after day of bagel dogs, pizza, jello, and canned fruit swimming in sugar syrup just about did her in. She finally got sick on a peanut butter sandwich served on previously frozen graham crackers. Wu says that some of the food additives typical to US school lunches are banned abroad. She also claims that kids typically get between nine to 13 minutes to eat, and that she could draw a direct connection between what her students had for lunch to their subsequent difficulties paying attention in class.
"When I saw spaced out children, I could draw [a] line between how they were acting and what we were all eating," she said.
Again, the proposed reforms wouldn’t have elevated school lunches to anywhere near the standard suggested by the Baseline of Health program, but any improvement would have been a step in the right direction. As it is, even those meager improvements look doomed. Perhaps, the best we can hope for is that like the Hudson River fish that “learned “ to thrive in toxic, PCB laden water,4 our children’s bodies can genetically mutate and learn to thrive on fast food and sugar. Let’s hope.
1 Associated Press. “Congress Pushes Back on Healthier School Lunches.” <http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_CONGRESS_SCHOOL_LUNCHES>
2 Nixon, Ron. “Congress Blocks New Rules on School Lunches.” 15 November 2011. The New York Times. 18 November 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/16/us/politics/congress-blocks-new-rules-on-school-lunches.html>
3 “Teacher Goes Undercover, anonymously blogs about a year of eating school lunches.” 01 November 2011. Public Radio International. 18 November 2011. < http://www.pri.org/stories/health/teacher-goes-undercover-anonymously-blogs-about-a-year-of-eating-school-lunch-6727.htm>
4 New York University Langone Medical Center "A Genetic Mutation Allows Hudson River Fish to Adapt to PCBs." 16 Feb 2011. Newswise. (Accessed 18 Nov 2011.) <http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/573536>