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Jeremy Bagott: School lunch scheme rich on indoctrination

By Jeremy Bagott

By the time today's kids reach the age of 35, 57 percent of them will be obese, a new study predicts.
By the time today's kids reach the age of 35, 57 percent of them will be obese, a new study predicts. TNS

The San Joaquin Valley tops the list in child obesity – in a state where already more than 30 percent of kids are overweight or obese. It’s enough to make a pediatrician hurl the Ice Princess-themed blood-pressure cuff across the exam room.

State lawmakers now want to pry the chicken tenders and one-to-a-customer milk cartons from the plastic-gloved hands of the state’s lunch ladies. The replacement? Quinoa tacos, eggplant sloppy joes and kale smoothies – along with a healthy serving of agitprop theater.

Straining the boundaries of fiction writing, the bill, introduced in February, would allow California tax dollars to be used to undermine the federal School Lunch Program and teach kids about the evils of Greek yogurt and cottage cheese in the nation’s biggest dairy state. It also brings the state’s Air Resources Board into the school nutrition game. It’s Orwellian. And it identifies the wrong culprit for obesity.

California Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian, a Democrat from Southern California, announced the bill on the steps of L.A. City Hall. It would reimburse public schools that offer students a plant-based entrée and plant-based milk at meals. The bill, AB 479, is known as the Healthy Climate-Friendly School Lunch Act.

It does make half a point. Obesity among California’s school-age residents is out of control. It’s what makes this type of bill so attractive on its face. A 2015 UCLA study found that more than 33 percent of the Valley’s young people ages 12 to 17 were overweight or obese in 2001. A decade later, it had only grown, to nearly 35 percent.

In Stanislaus and Merced counties, the rate was 36.2 percent and 37.7 percent, respectively. In Fresno County, it was 33.6 percent. In Kern County, it was only 29 percent. In Tulare County, it topped out at an outrageous 47 percent. The rate in Kings County was hardly better at 43.3 percent.

A hallmark of modern poverty in America is obesity. During much of human history, it was emaciation that marked you as poor. In today’s America, with its abundance of empty carbs, the skinny folks are more likely to be affluent. The script has flipped.

The UCLA study, which also delves into causes of childhood obesity, doesn’t mention school lunches once. But it does mention a long-suspected culprit: Sodas.

According to a 2016 report from the Agriculture Department, sweetened beverages, including soda, are among the most commonly purchased items by recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, once called “food stamps.” Many kids who qualify for the federal school nutrition program live in SNAP households.

The sweetened beverages category ranks second in SNAP household expenditures. It ranks fifth for non-SNAP households.

So, while lawmakers propose spending millions to fix school lunches with low-carbon vegan delights, the state’s poor – beyond the disapproving gaze of the school lunch lady – are enticed to spend federal money on sugary drinks.

The bill would also funnel wads of taxpayer cash to something called “engagement,” according to Nazarian’s office. That’s worrisome.

Engagement might come in the form of public funds going toward fearmongering, promoting a political platform that propagandizes against honey, cheese, gelatin, whey, fish, yogurt, eggs and foods with Omega 3 fatty acids. All the while, a torrent of sugary drinks flows into households through the backdoor courtesy of the SNAP program.

The focus on sodas has crossed the political aisle, too. And why not? It shouldn’t be controversial. Former ag secretaries under the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations – Dan Glickman, Ann Veneman and Tom Vilsack, respectively – together called for a greater focus on nutrition in the SNAP program in the lead-up to the recent farm bill. It’s preposterous that SNAP benefits would subsidize anything other than nutritious food. There’s your problem.

Jeremy Bagott is a former journalist, a real estate appraiser and the author of “Guaconomics: Dipping a Chip into America’s Besieged Party Bowl.” He wrote this for The Modesto Bee. Email: columns@modbee.com.

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