Is free school lunch really free? Our kids are paying with their health

Is free school lunch really free? Our kids are paying with their health
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When I heard about the USDA’s free “healthy and nutritious” school lunches, I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach. These lunches are far from free. In fact, our children will be paying the metabolic debt they accrue (with interest) for the rest of their lives. 

Big Food doesn’t care about our health.

The “free” lunch program will come to collect

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Chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, infertility, autoimmune conditions, dementia and mental health issues are sharply rising — and it’s no coincidence. It’s the result of decades of destructive nutrition advice propagated by the USDA and supported by a multitude of special interest groups solely focused on financial profit. These diseases are a harbinger of metabolic global warming, and they’re far too prevalent to continue to ignore. But the truth is, these storms began brewing long ago, 10 to 15 years before they began to present themselves as chronic disease. Now the damage has already been done. 

The food pyramid is just big business

The original “food pyramid” that was developed almost 20 years ago, while deeply flawed, did possess some positive attributes. Fruits and veggies were at the bottom, indicating that these should be consumed more regularly. Proteins were next on the rung, with whole grains and calcium-rich foods above them. The dairy and bread industries were quick to respond, lobbying lawmakers to protect their profit margins, leading to our current ineffective and destructive guidelines. 

And yes, the USDA attempted a healthier model with the rollout of MyPlate in 2011, emphasizing portion control and more appropriate distribution of the various food groups. But that still misses the point since, at the end of the day, what truly matters is not only what’s in the food, but what's been done to the food.

Is ultra-processed food really food?

Food is defined as material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate and fat used to sustain the body of an organism, including its growth, repair, vital processes and to obtain energy. But what about processed food? The likely processed foods you’ll find in these “free” lunches have a host of things done to them before they hit the lunch table: sugars added for palatability, natural fiber removed to extend shelf life, emulsifiers, preservatives and more. And that’s not even factoring in synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and factory farming.

Let’s talk about sugar

Sugar is cleverly hidden on food labels; often disguised as corn syrup, brown sugar, honey, dextrose and fructose. Pizza, bread, pasta, pretzels, goldfish crackers, yogurt, apple sauce and cereal bars are all loaded with hidden sugars. Not only do added sugars displace nutritionally superior foods in the diet and hinder the production of energy, they may also deplete nutrients from other foods that have been consumed, as well as from body stores. It turns out, by the above definition of food, that neither ultra-processed food nor sugar is really food at all.

Professor Efrat Monsonego Ornan of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem recently published a paper arguing that ultra-processed food actually inhibits growth, citing inhibition of skeletal growth and the laying down of calcium into bone, as well as shortening of bone altogether. The hidden sugars in our diet are sabotaging our bodies and fueling our national chronic health crisis to boot.

These findings only add to what we already know: Ultra-processed food can lead to cancer as it essentially hijacks the metabolic program necessary for normal growth. More facts to consider: 74 percent of the food in a grocery store is spiked with added sugar (fructose) and children get 67 percent of the sugar in their diet from ultra-processed food, including school lunches and sugary breakfast foods like fruit loops and orange juice.

Predatory food and the lack of nutritional education 

Unfortunately, no one is teaching proper nutrition in schools — not before college, not during college, not even in medical school. In fact, talking about food has become as charged as politics or religion. As a result, children are getting saddled with metabolic debt and don’t even realize it until they’re in their 20s and 30s. The food industry is preying on the nutritionally uneducated. It’s exactly like putting charges on a credit card — you're using seemingly invisible money...until you get the bill. Metabolic debt (which is essentially insulin resistance) is similar — ultra-processed foods are racking up invisible charges within kids, until 15 years later when they receive a diagnosis of diabetes or another condition that is just as bad.

Insulin resistance explained

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that is responsible for moving glucose into cells after a meal. Over time, with frequent and excess consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates, the cells can no longer absorb glucose efficiently, so levels of this sugar start to build up in the blood. When this happens, the pancreas pumps out even more insulin in an attempt to lower the glucose. However, the cells stop responding to insulin (insulin resistance), leading to both elevated insulin and glucose levels. Insulin resistance is a major driver of metabolic syndrome, which precedes the development of most chronic diseases. Still not convinced: Studies have shown that one in three Americans have this silent blood sugar problem.

Proper nutrition for all populations

Many argue that free lunches are all that some families can afford; but you don’t have to shop at Whole Foods to find delicious and nutritious items for your family. In fact, national chains like The Dollar Store, Walmart and Aldi have options far superior to what the current free school lunches offer such as canned coconut milk, beans, tuna pouches and frozen proteins like chicken and meat.

We’re not helping our kids by providing free lunch if the food currently being served in schools across the nation. In fact, you could argue we are poisoning them. 

As the richest nation in the world, are sugar-laden foods the best we can provide for our school-aged children — our future leaders? My kids’ lunch menu is full of things that sound delicious, but by no means will sustain their growth or support their health. “Fueling” our children with loaded BBQ fries, mini corn dogs, nacho bites and cheeseburgers while expecting that diet to prepare them for a full day of learning and activity, is setting them up for failure — today and 15 years from now. I’m not willing to settle. We must stop setting our kids up for diabetes and other chronic conditions. We must advocate for more nutrient-dense foods that support concentration as well as mental and metabolic health. Only then can we call it “free” but until we change what we provide in these lunches, we're just adding to their "tab."

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David Rambo is the chairman and CEO of Simplex Health, with over 20 years of experience in the health and wellness industry.

Dr. Avi Gurwitz is chairman of the Department of Pediatrics, Division Chief of General/Emergency Pediatrics and medical director of the Pediatric UrgiCare at Redeemer Health. He is also Pediatric ER attending at St. Mary’s Medical Center and chief medical officer at Simplex Health, a medical nutrition group.