School Lunch Program: Bought and Sold

ACCORDING TO CONGRESS, THERE ARE TWO VEGETABLES ON THIS PLATE.

I am pissed and you should be too.

I know it seems kind of funny, to declare pizza a vegetable. Kind of like reading an article on the health benefits of beer. But really its not. Especially since we are talking about children.

A look at my son’s public school menu shows Fruity Cheerios as a regular part of breakfast and pizza, chicken nuggets and hamburgers rotating as lunch. And these are not Jamie Oliver Food Revolution meals. These are nitrite-modified food starch-hydrogenated oil-artificial color and flavor packed frankenfood.

On Tuesday, after heavy lobbying from the “salt industry, potato producers, and frozen food companies” and as part of a final House-Senate compromise on a $182 billion measure that would fund the day-to-day operations of the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, Congress declared that French fries and tomato paste in pizza count as vegetables.

More specifically, this spending bill would:
• Block the Agriculture Department from limiting starchy vegetables, including corn and peas, to two servings a week. The rule was intended to cut down on french fries, which some schools serve daily.
• Allow USDA to count two tablespoons of tomato paste as a vegetable, as it does now. The department had attempted to require that only a half-cup of tomato paste could be considered a vegetable — too much to put on a pizza. Federally subsidized lunches must have a certain number of vegetables to be served.
• Require further study on long-term sodium reduction requirements set forth by the USDA guidelines. > CSPI has published a study showing that “reducing sodium consumption by half would save an estimated 150,000 lives per year. That in turn would reduce medical care and other costs by roughly $1.5 trillion over 20 years.”
• Require USDA to define “whole grains” before they regulate them. The rules would require schools to use more whole grains. > This bill delays the requirement for lunch providers to use whole grains while Congress tries to “define” whole grains. Really?

“Some conservatives in Congress say the federal government shouldn’t be telling children what to eat.” Sure. I understand that train of thought. But most of the children who avail of free or reduced price lunches have no choice. According to the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), “more than half of all children in the United States consume school lunches provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and one in 10 has school breakfast provided under the USDA’s School Breakfast Program.” That’s 8 million breakfasts and 28 million lunches DAILY. Do the math for the frozen and processed food industry. That’s about 1.5 billion breakfasts and over 5 billion lunches a year.

So the American Frozen Food Institute spent over $5 million convincing Congress to protect their juicy $11 billion annual school lunch harvest. A gift that will keep on giving.

And we wonder why 1 in 3 children born after the year 2000 will develop diabetes – among other health issues such as heart disease. A damning and completely avoidable prognosis.

Beyond nutrition requirements, healthful meals have been shown to positively impact behavior and vice versa. A Good Magazine article published last year details the 13-year study in Appleton, Wisconsin showing that “since the school district began switching from processed foods to more nutritional offerings, it’s experienced a precipitous drop in all sort of deleterious behaviors, from drop outs to students carrying weapons.”

Unlike 28 million children, my son does have a choice and I pack his lunch everyday. But as a friend observed, that doesn’t mean he is not affected by the resulting behavioral issues – its like being exposed to secondhand smoke. He doesn’t eat the chemicals and artificial ingredients, but he is exposed to it on other measures.

A lot of the protest to changing the school lunch program is couched into a “choice” issue. Families who depend on school lunches have no choice. It is as simple as that. Feeding our children junk just because the USDA needs to provide a “guaranteed market for agricultural products” and because the frozen food industry is such a great gift giver? Categorically wrong.

That’s why I’m pissed and why you should be too.

Here are some great resources for forward actions, as a starting point.
Marion Nestle’s School Lunch Bibliography
Renegade Lunch Lady
Two Angry Moms
Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution
Slow Food USA Time for Lunch Campaign

Sources and references:
If you read one, read this: “Everyone’s Favorite Vegetable, Frozen Pizza,” Tom Philpott, Mother Jones

HUffington Post: Struggling Families Depend More on School Lunches
GOOD Magazine: Do Healthier School Lunches Curb Bad Behavior?
USA Today: Congress Pushes Back on Healthier School Lunches
MSNBC: Pizza as Vegetable? Congress Says Yes
Notions Capital: “Is Pizza a Vegetable? In School Lunches, Congress Says Yes,” Michele McNeil

Links From Notions Capital:
Education Week blog
“Pizza Counts as a Vegetable? How the Spending Bill in Congress Could Unravel Progress on School Nutrition,” Mark Bishop, Healthy Schools Campaign
“Retired Generals and Admirals Tell Congress: Just Say No to Pizza as a Vegetable in School Lunches” (press release)
“Congressional Magicians Attempt To Transform Pizza Into A Vegetable,” Doug Berry, Jezebel
“Potato politics, with a pizza side,” David Rogers, Politico

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7 Responses to School Lunch Program: Bought and Sold

  1. Vegan Version on November 17, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Amen.

  2. Emily on November 17, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    this infuriates me to no end. what a freakin’ joke calling pizza a vegetable.

    {that’s the only intelligible thing I can say right now.}

  3. becky on November 17, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    You beat me to it, Leah. I’ve been pissed about this since I read about it on Tuesday.

  4. Kelsey on November 17, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Can running for Congress be your next project Leah?

  5. JAYDA on November 17, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    This makes me sad. It is heart breaking that there is a population of children that have no other option but to eat this so called ‘healthy’ lunch. This food does nothing to nourish their bodies or brains. It is a vicious cycle.

  6. Mike on November 18, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    This is astonishing and infuriating, in equal measure. I pack my kids’ lunches too, but the exposure is constant and insidious. Your analogy to secondhand smoke exposure is a persuasive one. (Sometimes my kids say wistfully that they wish they could buy their lunches sometimes.) Sigh, plus goddammit.

    Let me know where/when to sign the petition for your Congressional run.

  7. fatty mcfatterson on November 20, 2011 at 8:55 am

    conservatives believe being poor is a choice

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