“I wouldn’t be where I am today without chocolate milk.” Sonny Purdue, the Secretary of Agriculture, proudly cooed said to reporters last week regarding how fat (and sugar) can make a body grow. What a glowing advertisement of a good diet. Though, the physique of a 70-something politician is not often thought of as the epitome of health for schoolchildren.
According to the New York Times, one in three children in the U.S. is considered obese or overweight. It is estimated that as early as 2030 more than half the U.S. adult population will be labeled obese. The secretary’s chuckling about his lifelong love for chocolate milk hardly seems appropriate, given the statistics. Beyond the inappropriate, however, is the irresponsible and destructive measures the USDA took on school lunch reform at the beginning of the month.
Purdue, under the unsurprisingly and clumsily nicknamed proclamation, “Make School Meals Great Again,” rolled back the (already meek) Obama-era advances towards healthier school lunches. In her tenure as First Lady, Michelle Obama worked with congress to pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA). The act resulted in a national mandate for schools to make their meal offerings healthier; with less sodium, less saturated fats, and more whole grains.
Under Purdue’s USDA, school’s are no longer required to meet the HHFKA standards. Purdue’s mandate, did not explicitly undo the standards, but removed the few teeth the standards had by allowing for schools to apply for exemptions to any and all of them.
In his explanation for the rollback, Purdue horrified good parents everywhere by citing simply that children didn’t like the healthier options. It is the current administration’s solution, then, to return to the salty, fatty, whiter foods kids clammer for.
Who hasn’t been there before? Of course kids would rather eat sugar with a side of salt washed down with a glass of chocolate milk for breakfast. But, parents know the ramifications of feeding a child crap for every meal (To review: most immediately, a tantrum, but long-term repercussions from a sustained diet of sugar and salt are diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, to name a few). Since parents 1. do the food shopping, 2. cook the meals, and 3. make the damn rules, they know to say: eat your oats and fruit or we’ll be late to school and you’ll be hungry. We all live in fear of the wrath of the hungry child, but as Rule Makers, we stick to the plan and in a few hours (at best), a few days (at worst), they fold, they eat.
In response to the new exemptions, Howell Wechsler, CEO of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, said in a statement, “We would not lower standards for reading, writing, and arithmetic just because students found them challenging subjects, and we should not do it for school nutrition either.”
The problem here is not just that Purdue rolled back advances towards a healthier school lunch, but that those Obama advances weren’t nearly enough in the first place. In one standard, the HHFKA declared that all flavored milk be low fat. Flavored milk is a coy and vague name for chocolate milk. The problem with flavored milk isn’t simply the fat, it is the 20 grams of sugar per serving. For children under eight, this is nearly their daily recommended limit of sugar (both naturally occurring and added) in just one cup. No matter Purdue’s insistence chocolate milk is what does his body good, it is well documented that children—and adults—would be healthier if they skipped the sugared drinks.
This may not be Ronald Reagan infamously declaring ketchup as a vegetable, but advocating chocolate milk as an appropriate daily accompaniment to children’s lunches is hardly any better.
Purdue is a grandfather of 14, so it has been a while since he’s parented, and we all know that grandparents are the worst offenders when it comes to indulging our kids.To think, though, that Purdue’s changes are merely the quaint proclivity towards indulgence of a grandfather would be naive. Like everything, and particularly in government, follow the money to understand the motivations behind the policy.
Tax records show that 60% of the income of the School Nutrition Association (the SNA is the very association that oversees school lunches nationwide) came from sponsorship fees from food companies including Schwan’s and Con-Agra (the proud parents of the notoriously unhealthy, such as frozen pizzas and canned whipped cream). Companies like Schwan’s rely deeply on the American school child’s dedication and devotion (or simply put, addiction) to salt, sugar, and processed white flour. Big Food controls the SNA, which in turn lobbies the USDA, which obediently un-does the few small steps made towards healthier lunches.
The best way to control a child’s lunch is to make it at home. You can get involved through your PTA or by directly registering your concerns with the school’s administration. Nothing the USDA issued this month, on school lunches, is mandatory; that is good! It is up to each individual school to decide how they should (if at all) comply with the HFFKA guidelines. Since the current administration isn’t going to look out for our kids here, it is up to parents to demand schools provide healthy, nutritious options for kids, rather than reliable income for the processed food industry.
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