By The Nashville Tennessean
Strangely, in the current climate of political gamesmanship, it has become a matter of debate whether to raise nutritional standards in school cafeterias, even in the face of alarming statistics about child obesity and child diseases linked to bad diet.
Just weeks ago, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill to help schools pay for healthier school breakfasts and lunches, building on the popular campaign undertaken by first lady Michelle Obama. Not only do healthier foods typically cost more, but the existing school lunch program was underfunded, covering only 82 percent of the cost of school meals at the same time as costs for staples including bread and milk soared.
Even as the president signed the bill, newly in-charge House Republicans were threatening to repeal the measure as too costly, though they offered no alternative. Just last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its plan for new nutritional guidelines for the school meal program – and critics cried amp”nanny state.”
But let’s be clear: The new USDA guidelines are an attempt by that department not only to help with child health issues, but to correct its own past mistakes. The USDA typically steered school lunch programs to meat and dairy providers while giving producers of vegetables, fruits and grains short shrift. Making the school-meal program that has been in place for decades better hardly seems to be an overreach.
What would the guidelines do? Cafeterias gradually would have to incorporate more whole grains and low- or nonfat milk into school meals. Starchy vegetables – French fries – would be limited to about 1 cup per child a week. And schools also would have to gradually cut sodium by more than half. The guidelines would extend to a la carte items on the cafeteria line and to vending-machine products in the schools.
The guidelines are based on recommendations from the federal Institute of Medicine, and have not yet been formally adopted. But they should be, because an estimated 32 million American children get more than half of their daily calories from the meals they eat in school, the USDA says, and one-third of children ages 6-19 are overweight or obese.
It is easy for critics simply to say that child nutrition should be left to parents; that passes the buck to the anonymous, faceless portion of the U.S. population that either does not comprehend the need for better nutrition at an early age or who cannot afford the higher costs of healthier fare.
Our government can afford to fund a healthier school meal program, because our kids’ health is more important to our country’s future than many other, more costly programs. And getting children to make the right food choices now will save far more money later, when as adults they would require costly health care for heart disease, diabetes and other diet-related illnesses.
Shouldn’t we want better, longer lives for our children than what we have for ourselves? That’s what these guidelines are about.
- The Nashville Tennessean