The Trump administration is endeavoring to transform the school lunchroom from a learning environment into a junk food emporium. A recent announcement by Agricultural Secretary Sonny Perdue marking the shift would have been front page news if not eclipsed by the GOP’s attempt to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act.
Perdue is proposing that we cut back standards of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. School meals won’t have to provide food calorie labels, reduce salt, use as much fat-free milk and contain more whole grains. Perdue — backed by Rep. Robert Aderholt , (R-Ala.) who also chairs the subcommittee determining school nutrition funding — claims that these cuts would make "school meals great again." They say that relaxation of these standards is necessary to reduce costs, because kids don’t like the meals, and to block another attempt by the government “to dictate to local school systems.”
Are the costs are so high, the food so inedible, and Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaWe must mount an all-country response to help our Afghan allies Obamas, Bushes and Clintons joining new effort to help Afghan refugees Bidens, former presidents mark 9/11 anniversary MORE’s interest in preventing childhood and adult obesity so invasive as to justify stopping a program that has been shown to improve children’s diets and academic performance?
According to USDA figures, the healthier school food requirements in fiscal 2015 cost an additional $1.22 billion. Obesity and its complications cost nearly $200 billion dollars per year, or just over 20 percent of our national health care costs, plus billions more due to worker absenteeism. Americans spend over $60 billion annually on everything from ineffective mail-order weight loss medications to tummy jigglers. Only about one in six overweight adults are able to achieve and sustain a 10 percent or greater weight loss without surgery.
Numerous studies suggest that the behaviors we learn early in life influence our behavior as adults and that children are more successful in sustaining weightloss. Obesity prevention is an excellent investment. In fact, a recent cost/benefit analysis by experts in obesity epidemiology projected that provision of healthy school meals would prevent over 1.8 million cases of childhood obesity over the next decade.
Good nutrition via school breakfast and lunch programs has also been shown to promote better school attendance and academic performance. These benefits accrue regardless of whether or not a child is obese. The long-term return on better health and better academics across a nation should easily exceed the costs of better school meals.
Perdue used grits as an example of food not eaten and said, “the whole grain variety has little black flakes in it, and the kids won’t eat it.” A report from the Special Nutrition Program Operations Study agreed with Perdue and noted that 60 percent of schools reported an increase in the amount of fruit and vegetables discarded in the new meal plan. However, experts have pointed out that the amount of anything discarded would increase if there were more of it in the diet. The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity reported that under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, children are actually eating healthier with less “plate waste.”
The question of whether there is over regulation of school meals might be better phrased as “is health education important?” Teachers and schools are a means to engage parents in good health practices and provide excellent health education to students. By serving unhealthy food a school gives a stamp of approval to its consumption and wastes what could otherwise be a great opportunity to teach children about nutrition.
We pay to have our children educated. Is it really too much government to let a child know that a corn dog from Tyson foods, which receives nearly $90 million per year from school meal sales, contains about 340 calories and more than a third of the total adult recommended daily sodium consumption?
To be sure, Perdue is not dismantling the Health, Hunger-Free Kids Act entirely. He states that he is just “delaying it” and has spoken well of Michelle Obama’s efforts to prevent childhood obesity. It is not clear how this delay will do more than save money or who will pay for the supposed revisions that will be made in school meal programs while they sit on the shelf. Schools don’t cut algebra and its funding out of the math program because the students don’t like it. They work to improve the curriculum. Our children’s health deserves the same consideration.
Nowhere in the legal or educational systems is there a right to eat grits the way you get them at home. However, there are federal and state wellness education policies. Even if students would prefer sausage pizza for lunch, they don’t get to control their nutritional curriculum any more than they can dictate that pornography be included in their reading classes.
The biggest lobbyists against the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act are represented by organizations such as the School Nutrition Association that receives over half its funding from the food industry. That is not who we want to control the health education of our children or how our tax dollars are spent.
The school cafeteria is a classroom in which the curriculum can improve health and academics over a lifetime. We seem to have come to the intersection of Perdue’s desire to cater to the food industry lobby against any school meal regulation and President Trump’s efforts to destroy anything left by the Obama administration – no matter how good it is. Perdue is correct. School meals should be “great again” but the beneficiaries should be our children over Big Food.
Dr. Michael Rosenbaum is a Professor of Pediatrics and Medicine at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York City and is also a practicing pediatrician and a recent graduate of the Columbia University Op-Ed Public Voices Program. He has been studying the causes, prevention and treatment of obesity for over 25 years.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.