School Lunch Debate

Comparison of mandated lunch menus. Are you outraged? Click on image for larger viewing size.
There's been a flurry of interest in the last few weeks regarding new federal regulations on the subsidized school lunch program. Here's the disseminated information so you have a better grasp on what all the hubbub is about.

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federally assisted meal program operating in nearly 95,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 26 million children each school day. The program was established under the National School Lunch Act, and signed by President Harry Truman in 1946.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through its Food and Nutrition Service, administers the program at the Federal level. At the State level, the NSLP is usually administered by State education agencies, which operate the program through agreements with local school districts. School districts and independent schools that choose to take part in the lunch program receive cash reimbursement and donated commodity assistance from USDA for each meal they serve. In return, they must serve lunches that meet Federal nutrition requirements, and they must offer free and reduced-price lunches to eligible children.

New regulations for the NSLP were sparked by reports in recent years that almost 17 percent of children in the United States are considered obese. Educators and politicians decided to act by adjusting the part of this statistic they control: school lunches, the Global Good Group blog explained. "Before these regulations, the typical school lunch was cheese pizza, canned pineapple, some greasy, fried tater tots and chocolate milk (non-low fat/reduced fat). Now, though: the typical school lunch would be whole-wheat cheese pizza, baked sweet potato fries, raw grape tomatoes, low-fat ranch dip, applesauce and low-fat milk."

Got that?

Old                                          New
Cheese Pizza                Whole-Wheat Cheese Pizza 
Canned Pineapple         Raw Grape Tomatoes and Applesauce
Fried Tater Tots            Baked Sweet Potato Fries and Ranch Dip
Chocolate Milk             Low-Fat Milk

Not only does this seem meager, it still includes all the frighteningly modified organisms Monsanto so wants us to love, and ingredient lists we can't pronounce. You'd think that might be what all the outrage is about. You'd be wrong.

While there is wide praise for the effort to boost nutrition and cut calories in school lunches, there are also pockets of concern. The roll-out of leaner school lunches coincides with release of a USDA report that says the number of households suffering from food insecurity (hunger) is rising in the United States.

In 2011, 17.9 million U.S. households were food insecure, meaning there was difficulty providing food for all members at some time during the year due to lack of resources, the report said. In one-third of those homes, the problem was severe, causing members to reduce food intake and alter normal eating patterns. Children were food insecure at times in 10 percent of U.S households.
For households with incomes near or below the federal poverty line, households with children headed by a single parent, and black and Hispanic households, rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average, the USDA said. Hunger at home was more common in large cities and rural areas than in suburban areas and other outlying areas around large cities.

In Knoxville, Tenn., Union County schools nutrition director Jennifer Ensley said many students in the federal free-lunch program need the calories the old school lunched provided, as reported on WATE Channel 6 television station.

Note: Students are allowed a second serving of fruits or vegetables for free.

But for most American children, consuming too many calories is a bigger health threat. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, putting children at risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and bone and joint problems.

 Through the Hunger-Free Kids Act championed by the First Lady and signed by President Obama, USDA is making the first major changes in school meals in 15 years, which will theoretically help to ensure a healthier generation of children. The new standards align school meals with the latest nutrition science and the real-world circumstances of America’s schools. These responsible reforms do what’s right for children’s health in a way that’s achievable in schools across the Nation. The January 2011 proposed rule sought to improve lunches and breakfasts by requiring schools to: 
  • Offer fruits and vegetables as two separate meal components
  •  Offer fruit daily at breakfast and lunch
  • Offer vegetables daily at lunch, including specific vegetable subgroups weekly (dark green, orange, legumes, and other and defined in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines) and a limited quantity of starchy vegetables throughout the week
  • Offer whole grains
  • Offer a daily meat/meat alternate at breakfast
  • Offer fluid milk that is fat-free and low-fat
  • Offer meals that meet specific calorie ranges for each age/grade group
  • Reduce sodium content of meals gradually over a 10-year period
  • Prepare meals using food products or ingredients that contain zero grams of trans fat per serving
  • Require students to select a fruit or vegetable as part of the reimbursable meal
  • Use a single food-based menu planning approachUse narrower age/grade groups for menu planning
Leading the backlash to the new guidelines is Fox News, which has repeatedly referred to the guidelines as an infringement on personal freedoms by the Obama administration and Michelle Obama. As such, Fox provides happy validation (War on Health) for those who oppose new guidelines for health school meals - even to the point of praising the nutritional value of sugar-laden chocolate milk. Last Saturday, Fox's Alisyn Camerota reported on the "rebellion" by kids (actually written by a teacher, acted out by kids) who are purportedly upset with the new guidelines. Then the founder of "Regular Folks United" and "a concerned parent," Lori Roman, was introduced.

Lori Roman was from 2006 to 2008 director of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), a group founded by right-wing activists for the purpose of enacting conservative legislation and policies such as privatizing education, breaking unions, and passing voter ID laws. She is also president of the "Salt Institute" a group dedicated to the awesomeness of salt. Roman's "Regular Folks United" is a Tea Party group which, among other things, denies the greenhouse affect.

Roman's comments? That the government is replacing "Mother knows best" with "federal government knows best." She claimed that it "is wrong on so many levels" adding that "the one size fits all doesn't make sense." Doing her "mom" shtick, she opined that the bureaucrat who took away the salt and butter "mustn't be a parent" and "moms are noticing." She said it was ironic that a program that was supposed to do away with hunger is "making them hungry." She also noted that "poor kids" won't get a snack from home to supplement their hunger. (FYI, Roman does not have a background in science or nutrition. Her undergrad degree is in business and her Masters is in Administration).

Let's cut through all this bickering to ask two basic questions: If there are going to be federally funded programs to feed the hungry, is it okay to have basic federal regulations regarding nutrition behind said programs?
If our tax dollars pay for school lunches, is it appropriate to have a menu that complies with standards of basic health? How could this be applied to other programs, such as food stamps?
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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.