The french fry lobby versus healthy kids

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If the guidelines from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act are permitted to go into effect, schools around the country will replace poor-nutrition meals with healthy options that feature more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Many of the changes simply echo the decisions parents try to make for their kids each day. Most of us wouldn’t consider French fries a good option to serve our kids every day of the week. Unfortunately, under the outdated national school nutrition standards currently in place, many schools do just that—along other high-sodium and high-fat foods.

As a doctor and a parent, I believe that moderation is the key to healthy eating. French fries, pizza and other kid favorites have a place in our lives but only as part of a diet that includes a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and whole grains in order for kids to maintain a healthy weight. The guidelines that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed as required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act are designed to ensure exactly that type of moderation.

Not surprisingly, lobbyists for the potato industry disagree. In Arkansas we have limited portion size and frequency for French fries served in public schools. Other states have not been as progressive. Right now, seventy-five percent of the vegetables in school lunches are fries or other starchy vegetables—with fries number one in school lunches across the country. The lobbyists would like to keep it that way. They are pushing hard for Congress to undo the USDA's proposed guidelines to crowd other vegetables out.

The proposed school nutrition standards are about more than providing our kids with vegetable variety. They are about curbing a skyrocketing obesity crisis that has serious health consequences for this generation of students.

Nearly 30 percent of children in the U.S. are overweight or obese. That’s up from 11 percent just 15 years ago.

The result of this epidemic is that we have a generation of kids at increased risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. Poor nutrition can also have a significant impact on children’s academic success. Research shows that students who do not have reliable, healthy meals in kindergarten are noticeably behind their peers in reading and math by the third grade.

The good news is we have the knowledge and the tools to fight this epidemic; the school meal guidelines as required by Congress—including those to ensure a greater variety of vegetables—are an important weapon in our arsenal.

The bad news is that there is a real threat that Congress will stand in the way of these important changes. The House Appropriations Committee passed a bill to block USDA efforts to implement the guidelines. When the Senate returns after Labor Day, they will also have to decide whether they will continue to support these changes or reverse course. Will they prioritize the interests of wealthy lobbyists at the expense of our children? 

School personnel all over the nation want to serve nutritious food. Several school districts in my home state have successfully implemented changes aligned with or exceeding the USDA recommendations, putting students on the path to healthier lives. These schools and others across the country have demonstrated that they can provide healthy meals that meet the new USDA standards and that kids will eat and enjoy healthier options. But school officials cannot be expected to do this on their own without guidelines and support from the USDA.

As this issue comes up for debate, I strongly encourage members of the Senate to support parents and continue to demonstrate their commitment to the health and success of our nation’s kids by not standing in the way of the USDA’s common-sense improvements. 

Joseph W. Thompson, MD, MPH is currently serving as the Arkansas Surgeon General.