Organic Consumers Association

Hungry for Change

Hungry For Change

Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D., is nutrition director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the author of Healthy Eating for Life for Children. Patrick Sullivan is a PCRM staff writer.

Forget civics class or student government. If America's children want a sobering lesson in political reality, they should simply pay attention in the school lunchroom, where the perverse power of special interests is demonstrated daily on their cafeteria trays.

Parents got a good look at those trays during National School Lunch Week, Oct. 13 to 17. This event, which is promoted by the American School Food Service Association, the National Dairy Council, and cookie maker Otis Smunkmeyer, invited moms and dads to lunch with their kids. It's a sweet idea. But if parents pay attention to what their offspring are actually eating, the result may be some serious adult indigestion.

The food served to America's school kids is, all too often, chosen simply because powerful farming interests have nowhere else to sell it.

As kids cautiously prod the latest offering of miscellaneous mystery meat, they must often wonder where this greasy stuff comes from. Idealists young or old might imagine school menus being designed to offer the most healthful possible food.

Unfortunately, that's not how it works. The food served to America's school kids is, all too often, chosen simply because powerful farming interests have nowhere else to sell it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's commodities program, which supplies huge quantities of ingredients at low prices to schools across the country, has become a way for agribusiness to make money from surplus products that are often far from healthful.

It's a great deal for farmers though the program disproportionately benefits the biggest producers. But kids pay the price. As the country sags under a swelling rate of childhood obesity, high-fat school food increases the burden.

The federal government plays a major role in feeding children. The National School Lunch Program, which started serving meals in 1946, now reaches more than 28 million students a day.

Schools get a large portion of this food from the commodities program. Every year, the USDA buys hundreds of millions of pounds of excess beef, pork and other animal products to prop up falling prices. These high-fat, high-cholesterol products are then distributed at low cost to cash-strapped school dining programs.

Meanwhile, the USDA tends to turn up its nose at healthful foods. Nutritionists know that a vegetarian diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables helps prevent obesity, heart disease and cancer. But in 2001, the USDA spent $350 million buying high-fat beef and cheese for schools-and just $161 million on fruits and vegetables.

Should school meal programs serve special interests, or the children they were created to help?

The school lunch program began at a time when the chief concern was fighting hunger. Today, the nation's main food-related problems are caused by over-consumption. The number of obese teenagers tripled in the last two decades, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. And weight-related diseases are on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in three children born in 2000 will become diabetic unless they develop good dietary and exercise habits.

School food contributes mightily to these disturbing trends. For example, the federal government's recent School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study found that approximately 80 percent of schools participating in the school lunch program offer menus too high in fat to comply with the USDA's lenient regulations.

Congress is currently in the midst of reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act, the legislation that enables the school lunch program. That gives legislators a chance to improve the commodities program.

Two changes could make a crucial difference. First, instead of buying up beef, pork, butter, cheese and other foods high in saturated fat, USDA purchases should concentrate on offering low-fat, high-fiber foods from plant sources in quantities schools can use.

Second, schools should be required to offer non-dairy beverages like calcium-fortified juice or soymilk as a milk alternative. As it stands, dairy milk is the single largest source of saturated fat a leading contributor to coronary disease in children's diets, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics.

Of course, such policy changes won't please industry groups like the International Dairy Foods Association which is working hard to preserve the status quo. But Congress faces a stark choice. Should school meal programs serve such special interests? Or the children they were created to help?


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