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BellaOnline's Early Childhood Editor

Healthy School Lunches and Social Justice

In January of 2011 the United States Department of Agriculture proposed recommendations to improve the requirements that govern school lunches nationwide. These recommendations were based upon 2009 guidelines issued by the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine. The intention was to reduce childhood obesity , avoid future health complications and costs, and provide nutritionally sound meals to tens of millions of recipients of free and reduced lunches.

Among other changes, the recommendations increased requirements on vegetables, limited potatoes, increased whole grains and, significantly, eliminated tomato paste as a vegetable. I say significantly, because in May of 2011 the United States House of Representatives and Senate both voted to eliminate the implementation of many of these recommendations due to successful lobbying by affected food producers. In particular, producers of frozen pizzas fought the new guidelines, insisting the tomato paste on their pizza continue to count as a vegetable. Potato and salt industry lobbyists worked to similarly protect French fries.

What is even more shameful is that these guidelines were not even considered based on their own merit. The GOP slipped them into the November compromise spending bill to keep the government running, forcing supporters of the changes to make children’s health a casualty in favor of other priorities. The elegant response of USDA spokeswoman Courtney Rowe sums up the travesty nicely: “While it’s unfortunate that some members of Congress continue to put special interests ahead of the health of America’s children, USDA remains committed to practical, science-based standards for school meals.”

You can't legislate a processed food into a whole food or a junk food into a nutritious food. You can only lie about it. Feeding kids well IS a burden as those of us who strive for whole foods over processed, preprepared foods know every day. Lower income students whose parents don't have that financial or temporal luxury and for whom school food constitutes a large part of their diet deserve a diet based on their health and valid nutritional science, not whatever "food products" get lobbied in.

In my opinion, this should not be in the political arena, but under the auspices of an independent agency with those goals in mind. As Rowe said, the standard for decision-making should be science, not marketing or lobbying efforts. Congress should be embarrassed for selling our kids out for food industry profits.

Which brings us to social justice. Opponents of the new regulations called them “nanny-state overreach” and “overly burdensome and costly” regulation. But how many of their children eat school lunch? If the children of Congress members, or Congress members themselves, had to eat food regulated by these standards, how many of them would be content to leave their family’s health in the hands of lobbyists?

Contrary to anti-regulation claims, these standards do not “force” parents to feed their kids healthy foods (how dare they!). Parents who can afford it are more than welcome to pack their children pizza and French fries and a diet soda for lunch every day if they choose. But lower-income families who do not have the choice are the ones who are forced to accept food choices for their children that most middle-and-upper class families would never tolerate.

Parents who have the luxury to feed their children well or send them to schools that make this a priority need to speak up for and fight for those who can’t. Please consider letting your Senators and Representatives know that children’s health should not be determined by food lobbyists and that supporting the USDA’s science-based standards are an important first step in improving the health of America’s youth.

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