US children lose out to food industry
By the way Congress has reacted to proposed changes in school lunch programs, one would think that pizza now grows on farms and french fries will help motivate kids to eat broccoli. Decisions in the House of Representatives and Senate have once again revealed the preference for corporate interests over child health and their audacity in attempting to mask this favoritism under the guise of upholding personal freedom.
After less than subtle persuasion by food-industry giants such as ConAgra and Del Monte, lawmakers thwarted the recent efforts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide more nutritionally-balanced school meals. With childhood obesity levels threatening the immediate livelihood of school children and the long-term prospects of the nation’s healthcare system, the actions taken by lawmakers can best be described as deceitful, pernicious and shortsighted.
Last January, the USDA put forth a list of changes designed to reform the nation’s out-of-date and nutritionally deficient school lunch program. Unaltered for more than 15 years, the program was found to be out-of-line with the department’s stated goal of reducing the number of overweight and obese children in the US. Most of the changes were geared toward reducing the amount of starchy and processed foods fed to children and replacing them with less caloric fruits and vegetables. Of particular note, the USDA sought to limit the serving of potatoes to one cup per student per week, largely eliminating kid favorites like french fries and tater-tots.
At the same time, schools would have been required to reduce the sodium content of lunches by half over the next ten years. In order to comply with this ordinance, schools would have to cut back on serving processed meats and cheeses and tweak the recipes for many meal choices. Other changes would have altered the way certain foods are classified. Under the current standards a quarter cup of tomato paste allows for a slice of pizza to be considered as a serving of vegetables; the new guidelines would have required a half-cup and rightfully reclassify pizza as a non-vegetable entrée.
Predictably, lobbyists for the food industry went on the defensive and publicly advocated against the proposed changes. Many of their arguments were so contorted that they appeared almost laughable. Among them, the National Potato Council put forth the notion that potatoes are a “gateway vegetable” that will entice children to eat other, less appealing varieties. Want kids to eat their Brussels sprouts? Then stuff ‘em full of french fries.
A spokesperson for the American Frozen Food Institute rallied against changing how much tomato paste counts as a vegetable by saying, “You would basically render a pizza inedible if you had to put that much sauce on it to meet the new standards, and pizza is a big part of school lunches.”
Such a statement completely ignores the fact that the USDA’s proposal was, at least in part, intended to reduce the amount of pizza being served in schools.
Soon after the corporate backlash, members of Congress began voicing their opposition. The common refrain was that these changes were just another attempt by the government to interfere with the everyday lives of US citizens. However, given that the federal government already fully pays for more than half of all public school lunches and partially subsidizes nearly all of the rest, the USDA has a vested interest in seeing to it that school lunches are nutritionally sound and free from the influence of the food industry. In addition, the primary objective of schools is to educate students about a variety of subjects, proper nutrition included. Regardless of one’s position on the matter, students would still able to bring their lunches from home, and there is nothing stopping parents from serving up platefuls of empty calories during dinner time. At least with the reformed school lunch program, children would be ensured a minimum of one healthy meal per day.
Ultimately, the special interests won out and Congress blocked any funding for the proposed changes to the school lunch program. And while pizza effectively remains a vegetable, the reality of the nutritional deficits of school lunches looms large.
The percentage of US school children that are overweight or obese is more than 30 percent and rising steadily. As a result, diabetes, arthritis and other diseases associated with excess weight are becoming frighteningly more common. Many children from lower-income households have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. These problems would have been addressed by the intended reforms, but Congress caved to the will of the food industry and its oppressive influence.
In the end, they sold out the health of the nation’s school children, for globs of company-backed pabulum — broccoli never stood a chance.
Marc Anderson is a third year cell biology doctoral student and may be reached at [email protected]