June 8, 2014

Editorial: Big Food turns up political heat on healthy school lunch standards

Junk food companies persuaded the influential School Nutrition Association to flip-flop on its support for the standards.

School lunches shouldn’t be a partisan political issue, but congressional efforts to keep kids hooked on pizza and tater tots have turned them into exactly that.

It’s a shame, given all the hard work that has gone into fighting childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes in this country. And it’s heartless, given the lifelong health risks that beset the one out of three American teenagers and children who are overweight or obese.

Just four years ago, Congress wisely passed a law requiring stronger federal school-lunch standards – leaner proteins, lower-fat dairy, and more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

The standards weren’t handed down from on high by food Nazis; they were based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine and imposed by the Department of Agriculture. They made sense.

But they also meant an adjustment: Out with the chicken nuggets and frozen french fries, in with the whole wheat tortillas. Plus, students’ trays had to have at least one fruit and one vegetable on them for schools to be reimbursed.

This First World problem (a fruit and a vegetable – yuck! – the struggle is real, friends) created an opening for those who might profit by undercutting first lady Michelle Obama or the changes she championed.

As picky eaters protested, conservatives cried “nanny state” and some districts complained that the federal offsets weren’t covering the food waste.

Then, according to The Washington Post, food companies such as Minnesota-based Schwan Food, which supplies more than three-quarters of the nation’s 96,000 K-12 schools with frozen pizzas, persuaded the influential School Nutrition Association to flip-flop on its support for the standards.

Why? A spokeswoman for the trade group, whose members include food service directors and manufacturers from across the country, denied that it had anything at all to do with the fact that contributions from Big Food made up about half of the group’s budget last year.

Or with the fact that corporations like PepsiCo, Schwan’s, Domino’s Pizza and ConAgra underwrote their last annual convention.

Or with the fact that, starting July 1, the USDA is slated to phase in a mandate that would limit the availability of vending machine junk food and individual snacks such as, oh, pizza slices at schools.

But the upshot has been that, with the standards barely in place, House Republicans have called for a rollback as part of their proposed agricultural budget, with a waiver that would let schools opt out if they believed the new rules cost too much.

This push, tucked into an agriculture bill on which the House will vote in the next few weeks, is irresponsible and shortsighted. Change in any big program takes time.

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