US government basically declares war on millions of school children
In Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” children in a 19th century London workhouse are fed the smallest amounts of the cheapest foods to maximize the profit accrued by the owners. In Hansel and Gretel, a witch lures the children into her gingerbread home then works to fatten Hansel up for the dinner table.
The U.S. government has initiated a double-barreled attack on the health and nutrition of our school children using the same sinister strategies previously employed by workhouses and witches. The USDA is trying to deny essential food access to over half a million children by modifying the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Those without SNAP may become non-participants in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Limiting access to secure healthful meals will promote food insecurity and hunger, and encourage consumption of cheap, calorically dense, processed foods by families for whom every penny counts.
Simultaneously, the USDA and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue are working hard to pack school lunch programs with less healthful, higher calorie, and more fattening foods that contribute to obesity to serve the interests of big business. They claim that these changes will “make school meals great again.”
Federally mandated school meals began in 1946 when the Truman administration passed the National School Lunch Act and inaugurated the NLSP “as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children.”
The USDA has repeatedly tried to constrict SNAP participation eligibility because current rules do not provide sufficiently protect against fraud and do too little to move families towards self-sufficiency.
Nonetheless, the USDA itself has acknowledged recipient fraud was infrequent. SNAP provides benefits in the form of 30 million low costs meals per day to about 20 million U.S. children. If the USDA proposal is approved, over half a million children will become ineligible for assistance via SNAP and NSLP.
These children will become metabolic casualties of under-nutrition with the foods that are good for them and, conversely an increased risk of obesity and its co-morbidities with consumption of “great, but less healthy, meals” in school.
In 1946, national security concerns were based on the prevalence of youth who were unfit for the military based on undernutrition. Currently, approximately 30 percent of youth are “unfit” for military service due to excess weight. The changes proposed will increase the consumption of ultra-processed foods high in salt, sugar, and fat. These foods contribute to obesity, and therefore, the resultant obesity constitutes a threat to our national security.
The 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act increased school meal fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and reduced-sodium in the NSLP. Studies across the nation have shown significant benefits from this Obama initiative. It has been well-documented that children are eating healthier with no increase in “plate waste.”
In 2017, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that improving school nutrition would prevent 345,000 cases of childhood obesity by 2025. For every dollar invested in improved school nutrition programming, there are 5 dollars saved in reduced health care costs.
Secretary Perdue has worked relentlessly with the USDA to cut back the standards of the Healthy, Hunger-Free, Kids Act. This month, the USDA proposed allowing pastries and granola bars instead of half of the current breakfast fruit requirement, permitting potatoes to be a daily lunch vegetable, and offering pizza, fries, or burgers in school meals.
In reality, these changes threaten to reverse the plateau in childhood obesity that we have achieved over the last 15 years, exacerbating the increasing prevalence of adult obesity in America, increase obesity-
These efforts to further undo Michele Obama’s effective health-promoting work are deliberate, malicious, and vindictive attacks on one of the most important children’s nutrition policies since the Nixon administration.
The Let’s Move campaign made school meals great. Secretary Perdue and the USDA are making schools meals obesogenic and unhealthy again. The clear adverse impacts of these changes on children’s health demonstrate that there are no limits to the steps that Secretary Perdue and his colleagues will take to erase the positive legacies of the Obama administration.
Of course, diminishing the toxic food environment and teaching good health habits in cafeterias brings the government into our schools. Secretary Perdue claims that requiring schools to discourage bad health habits and promote good ones is too much government. The costs of following this plan are too high, and the benefits are too low to see it as anything more than “too little common sense.”
“Who benefits?” It’s certainly not our children. Like a London workhouse, children’s health, and nutrition are being given only as much attention as needed to maximize industry profits. Like Hansel, children are being “fattened up” for the immediate gratification of Secretary Perdue and Big Food.
Damaging the health of children to feed the profits of companies marketing unhealthy processed foods is intolerable. We can only hope that states, school districts, and communities will show more interest in children’s health than the government has and not allow these changes in our children’s schools.
Dr. Michael Rosenbaum is a professor of pediatrics and medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. He has spent over 30 years studying obesity and health practices in adults and children, including school-based exercise and nutrition programming. Dr. William H. Dietz is the chair of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness at George Washington University and the former director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. His expertise in children’s health, relevant health policies, and school health is internationally recognized.