Political pizza-pushers threaten school nutrition gains

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This week, some members of Congress will consider reversing recently won school nutrition regulations that provide more whole-grain foods and fresh fruits and vegetables in school lunches. Such a move would slam schools right back to the pizza-as-a-vegetable mentality that's contributed to an epidemic of childhood obesity in this nation.

The AFT is joining hundreds of other child advocacy organizations to protest the backsliding and protect the nutritional gains we fought so hard to win: 209 groups, from the American Heart Association to Utahns Against Hunger, signed a statement urging Congress "to oppose efforts to intervene in science-based rules regarding the federal child nutrition programs."

Those rules, established by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, have already made a positive difference in the lives of children, many of whom rely on school lunches as a primary source of food. Driven by statistics showing that one-third of our children are overweight or obese, the act requires that school meals include more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, low-fat instead of high-fat milk, and more sensibly controlled portions.

But a group of Congressional representatives wants to change the 100 percent whole-grain requirement currently in place for school lunches to 50 percent; water down restrictions on competitive food sales (like vending machines) and sodium content; and request a waiver program for schools based on the additional cost for healthier food—despite the fact that 90 percent of the nation's schools are already complying with the new guidelines. They are reviewing policies beginning May 20 through the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture.

Why does anyone want to scrap healthy food policy for children? Deep-pocketed corporations, which market junk food directly to kids, are lobbying committee members to keep their processed foods on lunch trays, which means shoving aside healthier options.

"There's got to be a profit motive behind lowering the standards," says David Gray, president of the Oklahoma City Federation of Classified Employees and an AFT vice president.

Gray fought hard to return fresh, cooked-from-scratch food to Oklahoma City schools. He and other advocates of school nutrition, including first lady Michelle Obama, point out that childhood health begins early, and schools, where children spend so much of their time, have enormous influence on lifetime eating habits. A total of 31 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program. We cannot roll back the clock and scrap this research-based policy. "We want high standards and healthy, nutritious meals," says Gray. "That should be an integral part of reclaiming the promise of public school education."

Adopting healthier school menus has been challenging in some places: Food service workers have had to adjust recipes and sourcing, and students are still getting used to the new fare. However, "the USDA has been responsive to challenges schools face in implementing the new lunch standards," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in an online plea to fight changes to the nutrition standards. "Schools need support and technical assistance, not a free pass to serve junk to kids. And kids need nutrition standards based on science, not politics." [Virginia Myers]

May 20, 2014