Lifestyle

Poor nutrition in schools will continue | Gustafson

Last week, congressional legislators voted to block a proposal by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to improve the nutritional quality of the nation's school lunches, which the agency says contain too much junk food and not enough fresh produce.

The lawmakers named cost increases that would exceed the budget limitations of the coming agriculture spending bill as their main reason for keeping new school meal regulations from going into effect at this time. The USDA plan would have added $6.8 billion to the current expenditures, or about 14 cents per meal.

The proposed changes in the school lunch program would have been the first in 15 year. In keeping with the Obama administration's commitment to reduce childhood obesity, the new rules would have altered the way schools get credit for serving more fresh fruits and vegetables and less processed items, like pizza, burgers and French fries. Schools that serve federally subsidized meals to students from low-income households are expected to be in compliance with the nutritional guidelines they receive from the government.

The USDA's proposal was in large parts based on recommendations issued in 2009 by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). When the new guidelines were first made public last January, the Obama administration hailed the plan as an important tool "to stem the tide of childhood obesity and reduce future health care costs."

But food manufacturers and even some school districts quickly objected to the new requirements, arguing that it was not the government's place to specify what foods can or cannot be served in school cafeterias.

The USDA expressed disappointment over the derailing of its plan: "It is unfortunate that some in Congress chose to bow to special interests," said a spokesperson for the agency.

While supporters of the congressional action called it "reasonable" and important to "prevent overly burdensome and costly regulations," nutrition experts generally sided with the USDA and viewed it as a setback.

"It's a shame that Congress seems more interested in protecting industry than protecting children's health," said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a non-profit advocacy group. "At a time when child nutrition and childhood obesity are national health concerns, Congress should be supporting USDA and school efforts to serve healthier school meals, not undermining them," she added.

Some points of contention over the USDA plan seem downright outlandish. For example, pizza makers insist that a quarter-cup of tomato paste per slice should count as one vegetable serving. The USDA says pizza toppings should be more in line with other fruit pastes and purees, which require higher amounts to be given credit as a serving.

Never mind such silly quibbling over minor details. The bottom line is that unhealthy food items have no place on a school lunch menu, no matter what the law calls them. While it makes sense to control costs in times of economic hardship, imposing austerity measures at the expense of our children's health is not the way to go.

If school lunches continue to be of poor nutritional quality, a much higher price will have to be paid down the road in terms of health care costs. Meeting the nutritional needs of our youngsters today is an essential investment in our future as a country that should not be made a political football.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." (www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter (/twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD) and on Facebook.

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