How pizza becomes a vegetable and other forms of Congressional child's play

Unpacking School Lunch

by Alicia Harvie

Unpacking School Lunch

Traeger di Pietro

One in three U.S. children are overweight or obese. That means nearly 25 million children are lined up for a lifelong struggle with weight and nutrition-related illnesses. For many kids, the stakes have gotten extraordinarily high—13 thousand youth are now diagnosed with Type II diabetes each year, a disease so exceedingly rare in children that it was dubbed adult-onset diabetes for decades. In tandem with these trends, medical officials now anticipate our children will have shorter life spans than our own.

As we consider the causes and solutions to childhood obesity, I’d suggest casting a critical eye on our federal government, which isn’t doing America’s youth many favors.

School lunch on the national stage

While the government’s role in our daily lives is a fairly in-vogue topic these days, it has been a key presence in the school lunchroom for over 60 years. In 1946, President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act into law. The resulting National School Lunch Program (or NSLP) is a federally subsidized meal program for public schools and some nonprofit private schools and child-care institutions. Over 31 million kids receive at least one government-subsidized meal a day through the NSLP. Participating schools receive cash subsidies and foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for each meal they serve. In return, they must serve lunches that meet federal nutrition requirements at reduced or no cost to kids. Those requirements include offering one-third of daily recommended intakes for calories, protein, and major vitamins and minerals, as well as having less than 30 percent of the meal’s calories coming from fat. They also include serving a certain number of vegetables. And it is in this realm where some recent shenanigans have occurred. Fresh off the heels of campaigns like the First Lady’s Let’s Move! Initiative and Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, the USDA moved to change the parameters guiding NSLP. Based on 2009 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, it moved to update its nutritional guidelines for NSLP and limit starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn, and peas to two servings a week, (primarily to cut down on French fries consumption). It also aimed to reduce sodium in lunches, and, somewhat infamously, to now consider a full half-cup of tomato paste a vegetable, instead of two tablespoons as it did previously.

Say what?

The tomato paste in question is used by schools to make pizza, and a two tablespoon- serving size is usually what makes it onto one slice. So essentially, USDA was telling schools: you can’t put pizza on the menu and check it off as a vegetable. You’ll have to try a bit harder than that. This caused a firestorm in Congress. Major food companies and commodity organizations huffed and puffed, flexed their lobbying muscles and pushed back hard. How ridiculous! they opined. The federal government shouldn’t tell kids what to eat. Two tablespoons of tomato paste has loads of nutrition, and so forth. And they succeeded. President Obama signed the agricultural appropriations bill into law with pro-business edits that curbed efforts to limit pizza and French fries and promote more variety, whole grains and fruits and vegetables. This political child’s play came shortly before another unappetizing piece of news. It recently surfaced that 70 percent of the ground beef sold in supermarkets, and around seven million pounds of ground beef used in the NSLP, contain a product called boneless lean beef trimmings, unaffectionately dubbed “pink slime.”

Meatpackers create this product by passing meat trimmings through a centrifuge to separate meat from fat, and then treat it with ammonia gas or antimicrobial agents to kill pathogens like E. coli or Salmonella. The resulting “slime” is mixed into ground beef, usually constituting less than a quarter of a final packaged meat product.

Until the Bush Administration, beef trimmings were restricted to use in pet foods and cooking oils. Industry advocates maintain that trimmings are safe and help lower the fat content of ground beef. Opponents question its safety, take issue with the lack of labeling and argue that meatpackers use the product to cut prices paid to ranchers. In light of the controversy (including major fast food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King announcing they will no longer use it), the USDA announced that starting this fall, it will allow schools to choose whether or not they’d like their ground beef mix made with the product. A win, perhaps, for advocates of healthier school lunches, but one that hardly stirs confidence in the NSLP or in the capacity of school districts to source healthy products for our children.

The money where our mouth is

We tend to miss the forest for the trees when we carve up federal policies. Whatever the amount of tomato paste or beef trimmings, current policies fall woefully short of serving up healthy meals for the country’s growing minds and bodies. Certainly, how much the federal government can influence school nutrition is a matter of debate. A 2007 USDA audit, for example, revealed that just 20 percent of schools served meals that met federal guidelines for fat content. So, rules or no rules, our schools seem to fail. But I’d argue that we need more sensible regulations that resist the pull of lobbying dollars from food giants. While lobbyists fight to get their ultra-processed foods to fit within nutrition guidelines, our country’s children are growing up without any sense of how to fuel their growing bodies. Most school districts have their hands are tied,operating lunch programs on razor-thin budgets and struggling to source healthier foods under contracts with their food service suppliers. It’s a space where the federal government should be offering more clarity, not crafting dubious regulations about what processed good can count as a vegetable. At least then the question becomes one of enforcement and not the quality of standards themselves.

Let’s get back to where this discussion started: our children’s rapidly expanding waistlines. Added sugars and fats contribute 40 percent of their daily calories. Empty calories that come from six sources—soda, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, grain desserts, pizza, and whole milk—are all foods that they can and do consume daily in a school environment.

With taxpayer dollars at hand and a looming health crisis, the reality is we will either pay for the health of our children now or into the future.

In a given year, the National School Lunch Program costs about $10.5 billion. Treating obesity and related illnesses costs us a whopping $147 billion annually.

You do the math.