Convincing a child that it is in their best interest to set aside the French fries and pick up a celery stick is never an easy proposition. But arming children with congressional backing of their argument that pizza, is in fact healthy because it contains vegetables makes the effort nothing short of Sisyphean. Most of us know better, of course, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture rightly attempted to make school lunches healthier by eliminating a range of similarly cynicism-inducing definitions that have kept the meals at the questionable end of the nutrition spectrum. Congress saw things differently.
Capitulating to pressure from potato growers including those in Colorado as well as frozen food companies and the salt industry, Congress blocked or delayed many components of the proposed rules designed to improve the nutritional value of federally subsidized school lunches. The revisions were based on Centers for Disease Control and Preventions findings that childhood obesity has soared to epidemic proportions in recent years, such that nearly 32 percent of children between 6-19 are overweight or obese a condition that puts kids at greater risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. To counter this trend and its potential for long-term health effects, the USDA proposed to adopt school meal standards that reflect the agencys 2005 dietary guidelines that, call for significant changes in dietary habits for persons ages 2 years and older, and emphasize the importance of a nutritious diet to maintain health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as overweight and obesity, according to the proposed rule.
The proposed rules provisions aimed to elevate the nutritional value of school lunches by boosting fruit, vegetable and whole grain requirements, establishing calorie standards for each age group, reducing sodium content in school foods, and minimizing trans fat. Among the most controversial of the rules was one that would reduce the frequency with which starchy vegetables such as corn, peas, and most notably, potatoes, appeared on lunch trays. The USDA aimed to call the bluff of those who place tater tots in the same nutritional category as spinach, but citing the onerousness of burdensome and costly regulations, House lawmakers set aside the rules in a spending bill released Monday. Preserved, too, was pizzas status as a vegetable provided each slice contains two tablespoons of tomato paste.
In striking down the rule, Congress has likely won the hearts of millions of American school children who will happily eat their vegetables as long as they are deep fried, or smeared between layers of mozzarella cheese and dough. But that newfound fandom comes at a potentially significant cost disproportionate to the USDAs estimates that the revisions would have added 14 cents to the cost of each school lunch. With a large and growing obesity problem affecting American children, it is within reason to predict growing health care costs associated with addressing the medical conditions that obesity can trigger.
Investing a small handful of pocket change now could help children chart a different course, all while learning about healthy nutrition and good eating habits. Undermining that effort so as to protect the packaged food industry and others whose bottom lines could be affected by improved nutritional guidelines contributes to the cynicism that raises questions about just who our elected officials are serving. In striking down the USDAs proposed rules, Congress impressed few and surprised fewer.