Wondering how it is that schools can serve children fatty pizza, candy bars, salty snacks, deep-fried French fries and sodas when federal law prohibits the sales of "foods of minimal nutritional value?"
It's because Congress wrote the definition awhile back -- get ready -- 30 years ago (and no doubt under the influence of agribusines lobbyists, just as today). The Carter Administration set the standards to ensure that foods sold in schools had at least 5% of an essential nutrient, like protein, Vitamin C or calcium; the standards do nothing to limit fat, calories or sodium.
But that could change this year, as Congress must reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act with a healthy amendment by U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., and support from the Obama administration, 88 other members of Congress and a host of public health organizations -- including American Dental Association, American Diabetes Association, American Dietetic Association, American Heart Association, Partnership for Prevention, Save the Children, and School Nutrition Association -- according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"Current nutrition standards keep some junk food out of our schools but let other junk food in through the back door. Today, doughnuts are allowed but lollipops are not. Cookies are fine, but breath mints are banned. This doesnt make any sense," Woolsey said in a prepared statement. "It undermines the federal nutrition standards for meals if students spend their money on unhealthy options. It also undermines the role of parents who give lunch money to their children expecting them to eat something wholesome and nutritious and their money is spent on unhealthy options instead."
In CSPI's estimation, the problem isn't the school lunch, but the availability of junk foods that kids can choose to replace or supplement it with.
"Current federal law only prohibits the sale of narrowly defined "foods of minimal nutritional value" in the cafeteria during meal times. But the nutrition standards for those foods haven't been updated in 30 years, during which time obesity rates in children have tripled," CSPI points out. "The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act would have the U.S. Department of Agriculture update the nutrition standards for foods sold alongside school meals in cafeterias, vending machines, school stores, and elsewhere. Those standards would apply throughout the school day, and everywhere on campusimportant reforms in an era where 'multi-purpose rooms' are replacing cafeterias and vending machines line hallways."
President Obama's budget proposes $1 billion more for child nutrition, and the economic stimulus bill included $100 million to upgrade school kitchens. In a recent speech Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack defended school lunch nutrition and other nutrition-related programs as economic stimulus:
"Now you say, 'Why was that part of the stimulus package? Why are we putting $20 billion of our resources into that program to try to stimulate the economy?' Because for every $5 that is spent in that program, we activate $9.20 of economic activity -- more crops being sold, more crops being transported, more crops being retailed, more crops being consumed.
"So you're going to see a major push from USDA to encourage, as we reauthorize the School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, an embracing of fruits and vegetables and specialty crops, nutritious food, consistent with the President's direction, good for those small producers."
More fruits, more vegetables and fewer candy bars and French fries. That sounds like a wiser plan for school lunch nutrition. Let's see if Congress manages to hold off the junk food lobby, which has been -- let's say -- very present as the Institute of Medicine defines a scientific definition for school lunch nutrition.
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