Sunday, October 12, 2014

School Lunch Wars

The health of our nation’s children is playing out on a quiet battleground. Every school day, school cafeterias in this country serve up 30 million lunches and 13 million breakfasts paid for by taxpayers. One would think that providing children with nutritious food at school would be the best place to make an impact on lifelong health and to stop the obesity epidemic. First Lady Michelle has thrown her back into this one. But once again corporate greed prevails. Food biz giants want their profits at the expense of the health of our children and they won’t give up ground without a fight.

One in three American children is obese or overweight. Right now. Projections indicate that in less than 15 years half the adult population will experience impaired health because of overweight/obesity (i.e., diabetes, heart disease, hypertension). Interestingly, some of the impetus behind improving school lunches in the past came from the military, which was having trouble finding enough fit young people to serve. In 2009, the Department of Defense reported that more recruits were turned away for obesity than for any other reason.

In 2010, the Obamas promoted the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. This bill placed new restrictions on food available to children at school based on guidelines for healthy eating. Passing the bill not only involved gaining approval from congressional reps, but also from manufacturers of food sold to schools, nutrition experts, and the cafeteria workers (who convinced children to take, try, and eat food on a daily basis). The Act passed, but when implementation began, things fell apart. The Republicans faulted the Democrats for getting behind Michelle to enforce heavy-handed, government-regulated rules about what children could eat at school. Food moguls hired lobbyists to work to derail and dilute the regulations. And the food moguls have the School Nutrition Association (A.K.A. the cafeteria workers) in their pocket. In public, the SNA pretends to be behind the Act, but behind closed doors it is the biggest critic.

As part of the Act, in 2012 school lunches were required to meet a host of new standards, including offering twice as many fruits and vegetables as previously. Starchy vegetables (read French fries) did not count. Believe it or not, there is a starchy vegetable lobby! But the biggest flashpoint of the war centered around pizza. Schools spend more than $450 million each year on pizza, the most popular cafeteria food. Prior to 2012, pizza could be served indiscriminately in school lunches because the pizza sauce on a pizza, rather than being counted as two tablespoons of tomato paste, could be counted as eight tablespoons of tomatoes (a vegetable). This may remind some of you older folks of the days when Ronald Reagan was raked over the coals for claiming that ketchup could be counted as a vegetable in school lunches. The 2012 changes associated with implementation of the Act no longer counted tomato paste as any type of vegetable. The SNA flipped out. I guess, cafeteria workers could not figure out how to design meals and prepare food that children would eat without the crutch of pizza. Furthermore, they didn’t want to try to get children to eat all those new fruits and veggies required.

Yay for Director of Food Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest Margo Wootan! She turned the opponents to the 2012 regulations into fools by stating in the media that Congress wanted to pass off pizza as a vegetable. Unfortunately, the pizza-makers lobby was strong and rules regarding how pizza sauce and tomato paste were classified were diluted by lawmakers. Regulations were changed and pizza can be served with little else of nutritional value to offset it.

When the 2012 regulations went into effect, cafeteria workers and schoolchildren across the country staged their own local protests to the new rules. Some children refused to eat the extra fruits and vegetables. Interestingly, the children who refused the extra fruits and veggies and brought brown-bag food from home instead were more often from affluent families. The children living in poverty ate the extra helpings of fruits and veggies far more readily, and were grateful to receive them. In fact, participation in the free lunch program (for low-income students) increased in the wake of the new 2012 regulations. As a vegetarian, who has spent a lifetime cooking delicious food dominated by vegetables, I have to say that most people who don’t eat a vegetarian diet have no clue how to cook vegetables in a delectable way. No wonder the children pass up these delights on the school lunch line. Vegetables and fruits are the best things going if you know how to prepare them. Sheesh.

By 2013, the Republicans and the wave of anti-government right-wingers had seized on the school lunch wars as something requiring their attention. Don’t let government tell children what they can eat. Conservative media sites have had a field day attacking Michelle and the Let’s Move! campaign. Wait, what? I guess Michelle is too momly for them. They don’t want to eat what Mom puts on the table, it seems. All this opposition could have a devastating effect when the Act comes up for reauthorization in September 2015. All of Michelle’s hard work could be for naught. It’s entirely possible that the Republicans, corporate giant food moguls, and cafeteria workers (who are being manipulated by the food moguls) will pull the plug on efforts to improve the nutritional value of food provided to children at school. If the Republicans gain control of the Senate at the midterm election, the Act will likely be gutted, and the war the Obamas have been waging against childhood obesity will essentially be lost.

Education of children and families about what foods will make them feel great and give them the gift of health is desperately needed. People need to vote with their forks. 

On Friday I attended an evening service at my synagogue. It was followed by a potluck dinner. I brought a Mediterranean cucumber and tomato salad to the potluck. I also brought several packages of organic seaweed snacks. I opened the seaweed snacks and left them out on the table. Within minutes, the children at the synagogue had devoured the seaweed snacks as if they were the most marvelous delicacy. That’s what I’m talking about. Nutrition happens!

Wait, what? Are the carrots and grapes supposed to make it 
OK to serve chicken nuggets and Oreos as lunch? Appalling! 
And what about the non-food meal of only nuggets and Oreos? 
Do we even care about our children's health?

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