USDA abandons America’s schoolchildren
In his State of the Union message, President Trump focused on giving all American schoolchildren the chance to succeed. Unfortunately, Sonny Perdue, his secretary of Agriculture, is doing just the opposite. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) proposed “School Meals Flexibilities” rule for school menus is a disaster for millions of children. It is a full retreat from science-based health and nutrition principles, is severely misaligned with today’s research, and could be considered a human rights violation of young Americans.
In context, America is facing a health epidemic of biblical proportions. The explosion of lifestyle-related diseases including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, dementia, stroke and cancer is adding trillions of dollars to our national health care costs, and much of it is preventable and can be traced to the food choices made by Americans, which are adopted at a young age. Ninety percent of the nation’s $3.5 trillion annual health care expenditures are for people with chronic and mental health conditions, many of which have poor nutrition as a strong risk factor.
Growing scientific literature consistently suggests that excess intake of refined sugars, salt, processed foods and animal products drives this epidemic. The literature also suggests that increased consumption of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains and fiber can prevent a host of diseases and, at times, reverse them.
The most prominent victims of bad food choices are low-income families, and especially their children, who may rely on school lunches as a primary source of their nutrition. Childhood obesity has reached such a catastrophic level that reports have suggested that Hispanic children in Los Angeles, suffering from chronic obesity, may not outlive their parents. U.S. life expectancy has declined for the third straight year.
It is especially ironic that, while advances in medicine may allow generations to live much longer lives, America is putting programs in place that will block that and lead our children to unnecessary painful, costly, debilitating diseases and early death.
The recent proposed USDA rule for school menus is especially disastrous. The School Meals Flexibility rule “makes it simpler” to offer items such as pizza, French fries and burgers (all foods containing ingredients linked to poor health and chronic disease), while reducing requirements for whole fruits and vegetables. This is unconscionable. The increased leeway for disease-promoting foods in school lunches flies in the face of nutrition, prevention and disease-reversal literature.
Of note, processed meat has been classified as a Grade I carcinogen by the World Health Organization, meaning that “there is sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in humans.” This is the same grade as smoking and asbestos. And yet, processed meat, such as ham slices, is still fair game in school lunches. Already, elementary school lunches alone contain 115 percent of the daily recommendation of solid fats and added sugars (SoFAS), while only providing 23 percent of the daily recommendation of vegetables, and elementary school breakfasts alone contain 90 percent of daily recommendation of SoFAS, with only 1 percent of daily recommendation of vegetables. Do the math: proposed regulations equal sick kids and high health care bills. Regrettably, Secretary Perdue and many school boards around the country do not take science seriously.
The proposed rule “supports a more customized breakfast program by allowing schools to adjust fruit servings to reduce waste and encourage innovative breakfast service methods” — read: cheap and easy — “and making it simpler to offer meats or meat alternates.” American children do not get the recommended amount of vegetables per day, and these policy changes will only make this worse. Adding new government policies supporting poor choices potentially creates a true social, economic and public health disaster. It is the definition of unfairness and abandonment of the next generation.
The result likely will be an even wider gap between rich and poor. While wealthier families — aware of and sensitive to the connection between nutrient-rich food, child development and health — are demanding less-processed, plant-based and organic foods, poor families are finding the federal government endorsing and supporting the least healthy choices.
The argument put forward for this policy is that kids won’t eat healthier foods. In fact, they clearly state that the impetus for the proposed rule is to “increase program efficiency” and provide foods kids are “eager to eat.” It is well established that ultra-processed, disease-promoting foods, loaded with salt, sugar and fat, are extremely addictive, so “eager to eat” should be branded as unethical.
If President Trump is serious about giving all kids an equal chance, he needs to change this rule immediately. At the same time, the education system is responsible for educating, and that means teaching kids and their families what today’s scientific research clearly spells out: that nutrition is fundamental to health and success in life, especially for children. But, if the proposed rule continues to move forward, the surgeon general should post signs in school cafeterias: “Warning: Eating Here is Dangerous to Your Education and Health and May Cause Death from Cancer and Other Preventable Disease.”
Casey Means, M.D., is a practicing physician with a clinical focus on nutrition, nutrigenomics and disease prevention. She is an associate editor of the International Journal of Disease Prevention and Reversal and a medical adviser to digital health companies focused on prevention. Follow her on Instagram at @drcaseyskitchen.
Grady Means is a writer and former corporate strategy consultant. He served in the White House as a policy assistant to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and a staff economist in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He was the White House liaison to the National Health Insurance Experiment, chaired the Food Stamp Reform Task Force, and helped write and implement the HMO Act of 1973. Follow him at gradymeans.com and on Twitter @gradymeans.