I thought about that title for a while before publishing this post, believe me. But I just can’t get around how true it is…and I’ll get to my logic in a minute. First the background: a couple weeks ago Congress changed parts of a bill that contained nutritional requirements for the National School Lunch Program. In an effort to slow down the devastating increase in childhood obesity and diabetes, the law had several proposed changes, essentially amounting to more vegetables, less salt, more whole grains, and fewer french fries. Congress changed it back: eliminating or delaying these updates. Why? Because the frozen foods, potato and salt lobbies wanted them to ($wonder why$).
Most public schools participate in the National School Lunch program:
“The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program operating in over 101,000 public and non‐profit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provided nutritionally balanced, low‐cost or free lunches to more than 31 million children each school day in 2010.” (Italics are mine.)
This is a tremendous amount of food: 31 million children x 270 school days per year = 7,440,000,000 meals (that’s nearly 7 and a half billion). To receive reimbursement a school must follow nutritional guidelines established by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). Those regulations currently mandate a certain number of vegetables and fruits and provide general quidelines around numbers and percentages of calories (from fat, carbs, protein, sugar, etc). Even children who don’t qualify for free or reduced price meals participate in the program, as their meals are still reimbursed, just at a lower rate.
Those all seem like pretty reasonable guidelines. So why does school lunch frequently look like a piece of pizza, side of potatoes, and chocolate milk? Because currently legislation allows 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, the amount on a frozen pizza, to count as a vegetable. Pizza is therefore one of the two vegetables on the plate. French fries are the other.
Presumably, nutritional guidelines were originally instituted to ensure that these millions of kids are fed nutritious foods that enable them to thrive, vs. junk foods that make them prone to illness and sluggishness. Well it doesn’t take a nutritionist to know what is healthy and what is not: fresh fruits and vegetables are healthy, processed foods like pizza and french fries are not. These guidelines aren’t protecting anyone but industry, whose interests are at odds with the very kids they were supposed to protect.
Congress made the decision to backtrack on better nutritional guidelines because of industry pressure – specifically the potato, salt, and frozen foods industries. The updated guidelines would have required them to spend more money to change their products and use higher-quality, fresher ingredients. Can’t have that.
This is effectively choosing the interests of powerful lobbies over the interests of children. This makes me upset, largely because children do not have a legal voice. They can not vote. They need responsible adults to help guide them so they can meet their potential. And in this case, the adults who are supposed to be looking out for them have consciously enacted guidelines that promote harm, not health. This is very, very sad.
“What harm does a little pizza do?”, you might be asking yourself. Perhaps Congress justified their actions with the same light-hearted thought process. I like pizza, too – as a treat. The problem is that pizza, french fries, and other ultra-processed junk food have become staples, not treats. Halloween candy is great too – on Halloween. Birthday cake is fantastic- for birthdays. But all of this stuff that we know (intuitively, if not consciously) are “treats”, have become 95% of the meal, vs. the 5% they should be. Birthday cake every day for breakfast doesn’t make sense, and neither does the daily junk-fest for lunch. The result of this lack of common sense/imbalance is unprecedented obesity and diabetes. All preventable and reversible with diet and lifestyle choices.
Child abuse is a pretty serious allegation. But when adults knowingly do something that harms a child, I call it child abuse. What causes obesity and type II diabetes? Too much junk food and not enough healthy food. Obesity causes diabetes, diabetes shortens life span and dramatically reduce quality of life, and that is tangible, serious harm. Again, all preventable.
To tell your congressperson or senator that this bill is unacceptable, write or call. Get involved in your local school’s food program. See what you can do. Today’s kids have a shorter life expectancy than you do. This has to change.