Is School Nutrition Doomed?

November 18, 2011

The healthier updates to the spending bill were blocked. What does this mean for our kids, and what does this say about our country.

Michelle Obama has been working quite hard in the White House garden and around the country, talking and demonstrating healthy eating for our future generations, but to no avail, as politics and the deep pockets of lobbyists seem to have her beat. The USDA nutrition updates to the spending bill, which included planning for the $11 billion National School Lunch Program, were blocked by House and Senate committee members earlier this week, delaying what Americans hoped was an advancement in the plan to slash obesity and overweight especially in our kids. 

The USDA’s proposal, the first update to the school lunch nutrition guidelines in fifteen years (by the way), which suggested cutting back on salt, reducing frequency of starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn, lima beans and peas, and adding more fresh fruits and for instance more dark leafy greens – in the name of getting kids to eat a more nutritious, varied and balanced diet – didn’t please segments of the food industry that have been banking on school lunch for years.

The proposal also requested setting a maximum caloric allowance (currently, there is only a calorie minimum) as well as more specific targets for whole grains and dairy foods. The Agriculture Department also proposed not counting tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable (unless it was ½ cup)… yes, it is currently considered a vegetable portion.

Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest commented, “Congress's proposed changes will keep schools from serving a wider array of vegetables. Children already get enough pizza and potatoes…It also would slow efforts to make pizzas – a longtime standby on school lunch lines – healthier, with whole grain crusts and lower sodium levels….They are making sure that two of the biggest problems in the school lunch program, pizza and french fries, are untouched. It's a shame that Congress seems more interested in protecting industry than in protecting children's health.” The Lempert Report completely agrees with Margo as well as Marion Nestle in this statement, “The Senate’s action has nothing to do with public health and everything to do with political posturing and caving in to lobbyists.”

Amy Dawson Taggart, the director of Mission: Readiness, said in a letter to lawmakers before the final bill was released, "It doesn't take an advanced degree in nutrition to call this a national disgrace."  Mission: Readiness has called poor nutrition in school lunches a national security issue, because obesity is the leading medical disqualifier for military service.

Programs like the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association's effort to put salad bars in schools has been effective for the students, schools and business. Which begs the question is the Senate and House doing what is "right" or just continuing their vendetta against the White House?

Clearly we need to put kids first.