By Dr. Mercola
In case you weren't aware, you can eat a few slices of pizza and a couple of orders of fries and reach your daily requirement of vegetables!
Of course, I kid, although it's really not a laughing matter.
Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed guidelines that would limit the use of potatoes in school lunches, as well as require a serving of tomato paste to be one-half cup in order to count as a serving of vegetables.
Since a slice of pizza has less than that, it would therefore NOT qualify as a vegetable, the way it does now.
Well, since Congress appears to have few more pressing concerns, they decided to invest their time nixing the proposed changes, and will continue to allow two tablespoons of tomato paste to count as a vegetable, and potatoes to be served with abandon.
Since federally subsidized school lunch programs are required to serve a certain number of vegetables, pizza and French fries will continue to be served as "vegetables" to school kids across the United States.
Who Lobbied for These Changes?
A handful of USDA provisions were vetoed by Congress, including standards that would not only have limited the use of starchy vegetables (including French fries) and changed the amount of tomato paste that counts as a vegetable, but also limit sodium and boost the use of whole grains in school lunches.
As you might suspect, food companies, including those that produce frozen pizzas for school lunches, and potato growers fought back, saying the USDA standards were too strict. Others argued that the changes would be too cost-prohibitive to schools already stretching their budgets. Unfortunately, what this means is that pizza and French fries will continue to be a staple found in most school cafeterias, which are already notorious for their heavy use of very low-quality processed foods.
It's true that most schools are on tight budgets, and though they may have good intentions, they often find introducing healthier foods a challenge, particularly when kids prefer the junk-food versions, or have not been introduced to healthier foods.
However, there are other factors at play as well, including not only intense lobbying from the food industry as noted above, but also "rebates" paid to food service companies that serve public schools for purchasing processed junk foods.
Have You Heard About Processed Food "Rebates"?
In an article published on La Vida Locavore, Ed Bruske revealed, possibly for the first time, that manufacturers of sugar-laden processed foods pay "rebates" (aka "kickbacks") to food service companies that serve school districts across the United States.
Bruske obtained documents under The Freedom of Information Act that revealed more than 100 companies paid rebates to Chartwells, a food service management company hired by D.C. Public Schools. As you might suspect, the "rebates" present a conflict of interest that could prompt Chartwells to order food for your children based on the amount of rebate it will receive, versus the food's nutritional value.
The end result?
School lunches replete with heavily processed foods like muffins, pizza, tater tots and flavored milk in lieu of fresh produce.
According to Bruske:
"Manufacturers pay rebates based on large volume purchases -- literally, cash for placing an order. Rebates are said to be worth billions of dollars to the nation's food industry, although manufacturers as well as the food service companies who feed millions of the nation's school children every day -- Chartwells, Sodexo and Aramark -- treat them as a closely-guarded secret.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that food service companies engaged in "cost reimbursable" contracts with schools credit any rebates they receive to their school clients. For more than a year, attorneys for D.C. Public Schools refused to make public an itemized list of rebates collected by Chartwells, claiming the information constituted "trade secrets." The schools were overruled by Mayor Vincent Gray's legal counsel after I filed an administrative appeal.
John Carroll, an assistant New York State attorney general investigating rebating practices there, has said rebates pose "an inherent conflict of interest" in school feeding programs because they favor highly processed industrial foods. In cases where schools pay a food service company a flat rate to provide meals, the companies are not required to disclose the rebates they collect. In those cases,
Carroll recently told a U.S. Senate Panel, rebates tend to drive up the cost of food, cheating children out of nutrition they might otherwise have on their lunch trays.
Carroll also described cases where rebates discouraged the use of local farm products in school meals. Produce vendors can't afford to pay a rebate for local apples. But in at least one case, a produce distributor raised the prices of his goods so that he could pay a rebate to a food service company. A Homeland Security sub-committee in the U.S. Senate is investigating possible rebate fraud in contracts across the entire federal government."
What Happens When Kids are Fed a Junk-Food Diet?
It is a well-known fact that many of the top diseases plaguing the United States are diet-related, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. The National Institutes of Health even states that four of the six leading causes of death in the United States are linked to unhealthy diets.
On the flip-side, it's been proven that when kids eat healthier lunches, they behave better, are less likely to be obese and improve their grades. So, kids who get poor nutrition are not only at risk of chronic disease, but their performance in school is bound to suffer.
Mission: Readiness, an organization made up of retired admirals and generals, even went so far as to cite the "pizza loophole that treats the tomato paste on pizza as a serving of vegetables on school lunch menus" as a threat to national security, since obesity is the leading medical disqualifier for military service, and an epidemic of U.S. kids are now overweight and obese, in large part due to poor diet.
The other issue at hand is the fact that federally subsidized school lunch programs are based on federal nutrition guidelines, which in and of themselves are rife with misinformation such as the flawed nutritional dogmas that saturated fats cause heart disease while unfermented and genetically modified soy is "healthy".
For instance, in order to comply with new U.S. government standards, soy products are now being used to replace whole, nutritious foods in school lunches. Due to the decreased fat content of soy, it is touted as a healthful alternative to the meat and dairy of yesterday's hot meal (and it certainly doesn't hurt that soy is one of the most heavily subsidized crops in the United States as well).
In reality, soy added to your child's hot lunch depletes the necessary nutrients needed for healthy growth and has been linked to learning disabilities. It is also genetically modified, which carries its own health risks.
For now, though, the simplest way back toward health for school lunch programs would be to focus on WHOLE foods -- foods that have not been processed or altered from their original state.
As Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma, said:
"Let's look at the school lunch program. This is where we're feeding a big part of our population. We are essentially feeding them fast food and teaching them how to eat it quickly.
If we could spend a dollar or more per day per child and work on the nutritional quality of that food – and require that a certain percentage of that school lunch fund in every school district has to be spent within 100 miles to revive local agriculture, to create more jobs on farms, to rural redevelopment – you will achieve a great many goals through doing that.
You will have a healthier population of kids who will perform better in the afternoon after that lunch. You will have the shot in the arm to local economies through helping local agriculture. And you will teach this generation habits that will last a lifetime about eating."
How to Help Prompt Positive Change for School Lunch Programs
On an individual level, do your children a favor and send them to school with a healthy, home-packed meal.
On a larger scale, and to help those children who depend on school lunches for proper nutrition, you can join Chef Ann Cooper's National School Food Challenge, and make the pledge to provide fresh, local and healthy food to your children both at school and at home. Ann is heading up a grassroots public health effort to make school lunches healthier using practical strategies like:
- Significantly increasing salad bars in schools across the United States until every child has the choice of healthy fruits and vegetables every day at school
- Supporting the Farm to School program, which is broadly defined as a program that connects schools (K-12) and local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and supporting local and regional farmers
I urge you to get involved with Chef Ann Cooper's programs to help incorporate healthier foods into school cafeterias in your area, and help lay the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating choices among the next generation.