Common sense needed in childhood nutrition guidelines

The United States Department of Agriculture’s “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” serve as the basis for school nutrition standards. The dietary guidelines list potassium, dietary fiber, calcium and vitamin D as “nutrients of concern in American diets,” because people aren’t eating enough of them.

Somebody, somewhere in the USDA, didn’t get the memo.

As a mother and grandmother, I want the best nutrition for my family. As a Member of Congress, I want to be responsible with taxpayer dollars. Fortunately, better nutrition and financial responsibility are not mutually exclusive, especially when it comes to the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. 

In proposed standards for the school breakfast and lunch programs also issued by USDA in January, a curious thing happened: nutritional recommendations were made that had no basis in science. Instead, recommendations were based on variety and cloaked as nutrition.

How else would you explain the arbitrary limitation of lima beans, peas, corn and potatoes to one cup per week per student in the school lunch program and the complete elimination of them in the breakfast program?

Lima beans are one of the best sources, if not the best source of dietary fiber. Potatoes are the best source of potassium, more than bananas. USDA’s recommendations went beyond those of the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine.

One assumption frequently heard that cannot go unchallenged is that all potatoes in schools come in the form of French fries. The truth is they don’t.

Food service technology has made marked improvements over the last decade and most “fries” these days are baked. In fact, of all potatoes served in middle and high schools, only about 15 percent of them are in the form of French fries that are actually fried. In elementary schools, that number drops to about 11 percent. Most school kitchens don’t even have fryers anymore.

At less than $0.05 per serving, the result is an affordable, nutrient-dense food that kids love and that won’t end up in the trash can. Even more, because they are so affordable, serving them allows schools to have greater flexibility for other nutritious menu items.

The proposed changes to the breakfast and lunch programs would have a number of unintended, yet very real consequences. By USDA’s own estimation, the increased costs of the proposed menu changes would be $0.50 per school breakfast and $0.14 per school lunch. Nationwide, this translates to $6.8 billion of increased costs over five years, the bulk of which are associated with this vegetable limitation.

These are real costs that will be only partially offset by the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act passed by the previous Congress that increased the reimbursement rate by $0.06 per meal. The resulting cost difference will be thrust upon the participating schools to make up at a time when they do not have extra funds.  

USDA expects that the difference in cost will be bridged by state funds and by raising the price for school meals for those children who do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals. At its core, USDA’s recommendations would amount to an unfunded mandate. Even worse and not acknowledged by USDA, the increased prices for those kids paying the full price of the school meal will result in fewer participants in the breakfast and lunch programs, undermining the original intent to deliver nutrition to those most in need of it.

There is concern that some schools may discontinue the programs — particularly the breakfasts — if the proposed changes are too cost prohibitive.  

To remove or limit vegetables from schools that our children and grandchildren actually like and will eat is simply misguided. But to make it more difficult for our schools to provide the best nutrition to those most in need of it is more than misguided, it is irresponsible. Fortunately, there is still time for USDA to do the right thing.

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