Last week, I briefly investigated the controversy behind the sugar industry. This week, I thought I would continue the food policy pattern by talking a bit about the nutrition standards for school meals.
The National School Lunch Act was created in 1946 specifically to provide “nutritionally balanced, low-cost, or free lunches”. For schools to participate, they are required to serve food that meet federal nutrition requirements as well as free or reduced-price lunches to eligible children. In return, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides subsidies, cash, and food to public or non-profit schools.
Here’s the Problem
If my skepticism wasn’t apparent enough during my sugar exposé, the idea of a “federal nutrition requirement” will certainly draw it out. The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 required the USDA to update their nutrition standards, which took effect in 2012. Unsurprisingly, there is a whole slew of new updates that are both unlikely to appeal to children and or to be effective in the uphill battle to end childhood obesity.
First and foremost, there is zero attempt to regulate sugar consumption. Instead, the USDA demands that every school must offer “low-fat” and “fat-free” milk. Additionally, flavored milk must be “fat-free.” The United States has been at war with fats for decades, draining it from every food group possible and pumping it full of sugar instead (for more on this, read In Defense of Food). It is absurd to vilify one cup of plain, 2% fat milk and hand America’s children a glass of sugar-laden, human-engineered, unnaturally pink “strawberry milk.”
Additionally, students are now required to take at least one-half cup of fruits or vegetables with every school meal. This sounds like a formative step initially, but I would argue the contrary. Forcing students to place a plastic container of still-frozen green beans on a tray is not synonymous with increased vegetable consumption. No child will eat these excuses for produce when there is a cookie sitting right next to it. Instead they will end up as food waste, rotting in our landfills and spewing methane into the already fragile atmosphere.
In order to influence children’s eating habits, the USDA must incentivize and restrict. Do not offer giant cookies pumped full of sugar and expect that children will pick snap peas and banana slices over baked goods. Do not demand that milk be stripped of its natural fats and then engineer a “strawberry flavor.” Remove the added sugar and integrate food how it’s found in nature—or childhood obesity will continue.