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Institute of Medicine Reviews School Food

On January 18, 2009, the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Nutrition Standards for National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs held a public forum on the Phase I Report of their review of current school nutrition and meal standards. The Committee’s work will serve to outline the criteria and processes necessary to review the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs under the Child Nutrition Act that will be up for Congress revision in September 2009.

School Meal Programs feed over 30 million children nationwide, yet who has ever had their child come home excited about what they get to eat at school? Instead of serving tasty and optimally nutritious foods, USDA-funded School Meal Programs have been one of the main culprits of children’s rising physical and mental health challenges, including but not limited to growing rates of obesity, diabetes, Attention Deficiency Disorder, and depression. Highly processed school meals containing excessive levels of sodium, fat and sugar should no longer be tolerated to feed America’s future.

As hunger and poverty become more of an issue, the Obama Campaign set the goal of ending child hunger by 2015. What better way to do this than starting in our schools? Ending child hunger is not simply about ensuring that American children get fed, it is about making sure they get fed the right things: real food. School-provided meals should have their children’s interest at heart, not ways of cutting the USDA’s costs or profiting corporate interests.

Proper nutrition is crucial for children’s development; not only does it contribute to children’s overall health and well being, it also helps them achieve their full potential and teach them to establish lifelong healthy eating habits. The USDA has taken an incredible amount of shortcuts to get meals to school lunchrooms and have consequently ignored many of our children’s nutritional concerns. Following current RDAs for children, kids of all groups are lacking in almost every category of vitamin and nutrient. Given these results, one can only wonder what our children are being fed.

Over the course of the Committee’s meeting on January 18th, Jay Hirschman of the USDA reminded the committee that despite their revisions, actual changes and implementation of school meal programs will take a long time to actually occur; a subtle way of letting us know early that changes are unlikely to ever truly happen? He also told the Committee—as did a number of other speakers—that cost will continue be a concern on the USDA’s ability to drastically revise and improve School Meal Programs.

Because of the Programs’ financial issues, a number of speakers showed their obvious disappointment in a lack of increased funding. Katie Wilson, School Nutrition Director in the Onalaska School District in Wisconsin, informed the Committee that many schools seeking to implement new and improved nutritional programs and healthier meals were forced to take steps backwards when faced with low funding. Both she and a number of other advocates highlighted that low funding is becoming a bigger problem as our current recession is causing an increase in student participation in School Meal Programs. When it comes to feeding our children, it should be unacceptable for a growing demand for food to receive no additional resources to relieve it.

Despite the nutrient deficiencies in children highlighted throughout the report and during the Committee meeting, the USDA was lauded for its efforts to provided low-sodium and reduced-fat items on school menus. These measures were applauded despite the fact that low-fat products have scientifically been proven to have little to no impact on reducing the risk of obesity, heart attacks, and cancers. Instead, real progress was shown to stem from an increase of fruit and vegetable consumption, one of School Meal Programs’ greatest shortcomings due to the lack of quality and variety of fresh produce available.

Nonetheless, the Committee on Nutrition Standards for National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs is currently seeking to establish the most favorable principles possible to guide the revision of the Child Nutrition Act. Some of these include the renewed understanding that school meals should improve the food and nutrient intake of children, that the health effects of food go beyond their nutritional content, that school meals can provide the basis for children’s awareness of nutritional and environmental responsibility, and that a good school meal can reinforce healthy eating habits.

The January 28 Committee meeting served to show that the principles established by the Committee—though still in its planning phases—are still just words. Proper child nutrition through a federally funded program must become a reality. The Institute of Medicine’s Committee partnered with the USDA must learn to feed our children real food. Cost should not be an issue when our children’s health and wellbeing are at risk, and should by all means be shouldered by the government; after all, a healthy child will become the adult who will depend markedly less on healthcare than an unhealthy one.

School meals must be diverted away from chemically treated, highly processed, and genetically engineered foods to healthier options, emphasizing organic or local produce instead. New ‘whole-grain Pop-Tarts®’ should not be able to count as a child’s healthy breakfast. Fruit cups with added sugars and juice from concentrate should not count as a child’s proper intake of fruit. Meats and dairy products containing unknown growth hormones should not be a child’s only available protein or calcium source, yet this is the unfortunate reality of our current National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs.