School lunches: weapons of mass destruction?By Nisa Islam Muhammad
Staff Writer | Last updated: Mar 25, 2003 - 3:42:00 PM
"The food currently provided through the National School Lunch Program has not kept pace with what we know today to be truly healthy and nutritious food. Rather, the foods provided in the program under the guise of good nutrition—chili cheese dogs, pepperoni pizza, cheeseburgers, and pork chops—are there to prop up farm incomes and are part of the problem that has created a generation of overweight children," Jennifer Keller, registered dietician with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), told The Final Call.
According to PCRM, federal policy—heavily influenced by the meat and dairy lobbies—literally forces the Secretary of Agriculture to favor beef, pork and other high- protein foods over healthier items when purchasing surplus commodities for federal feeding programs.
As a result, in 2001 the USDA spent $350 million on surplus beef and cheese—more than double the amount spent on fruits and vegetables. Federal policy also prohibits schools from serving soymilk or other nondairy beverages as part of a subsidized lunch unless a child brings a doctor’s note saying he or she has a medical reason not to drink cow’s milk.
PCRM believes this policy is discriminatory because so many Blacks, Hispanics and Native and Asian Americans are lactose intolerant.
"Pork-barrel politics is ruining our children’s health. Last year, the USDA foisted 420 million pounds of pork, beef and other unhealthy products on our kids and other recipients of feeding programs just to prop up sagging farm profits," said PCRM president Neal Barnard, M.D.
"In fact, the government’s two biggest expenditures for the National School Lunch Program were $179 million for cheese and another $170 million for beef. Does anyone really think our already out-of-shape kids need more cheeseburgers?"
The National School Breakfast and Lunch program is up for reauthorization this year. The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, headed by Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), held a public hearing March 4 to review them.
Gaye Lynn MacDonald, president of the American School Food Services Association, testified that her group is deeply committed " to the health of our nation’s children and is working collaboratively to further positive health outcomes. We are about good nutrition, not just providing food."
"According to the most recent USDA study on the subject, schools are making very significant progress in implementing the Dietary Guidelines. The fat content of a reimbursable meal is down significantly, and an increasing variety of fruits and vegetables are more readily available," she said.
Ms. MacDonald added that school lunch program operators have modified food preparation methods and have re-written product specifications to lower fat, sodium and sugars. Industry has responded to their requests and familiar student favorites like pizza, burgers and fries are parts of meals meeting the Dietary Guidelines.
It’s those "student favorites" that have teachers and parents alarmed about the meal plan.
"They feed our children garbage. That food is not what our children need. They get sugar in the morning, which makes them hyper, and we have to educate them," said Valerie Butler, who teaches high school math in Houston, Texas. "Then doctors put them on medication. In the afternoon they get ‘mystery meat’, which makes them lethargic for class. The food doesn’t promote good health or nutrition."
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) provides food for more than half of all children in the United States and one in ten has school breakfast. Eight million breakfasts and 27 million lunches are provided each day.
The program began in 1946 and has served 180 billion lunches. It operates in more than 97,700 public and non-profit private schools and residential child care institutions. School districts and independent schools voluntarily participate in the NSLP.
Schools that choose to take part in the NSLP get cash subsidies, donated commodities, and free bonus shipments from the USDA for each meal they serve. In return, they must serve lunches that meet federal requirements, including the nutritional requirements spelled out in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and they must offer free or reduced-price lunches to eligible children.
In 1997, the commodities program’s school lunch component spent $436 million—more than 70 percent of its money—on animal products, which contain no fiber or complex carbohydrates and help clog the arteries of American children because of high fat and cholesterol content.
A study, published in a June 1998 New England Journal of Medicine, showed that 50 percent of children 2- to 15-years-old have fatty streaks in their coronary arteries, a circumstance that sets the stage for further artery blockages and heart attacks later in life. Compounding the problem, the more meat and dairy children consume, the fewer fruits and vegetables they eat.
For Black children, the school lunch problem has become an invitation to obesity and health problems.
"African American kids are predisposed to heart disease and high cholesterol," said Ms. Keller. "It’s more important for them to eat a lower fat, sodium and cholesterol diet. The National School Lunch Program is nothing more than fast food fare."
PCRM is recommending to the Senate that all schools serve at least one hot vegetarian meal daily, have hot vegan meals available to children who request them, and require that schools offer low-fat vegetables and fresh or dried fruits at every meal.
They also want schools to be required to offer calcium-rich, non-dairy beverages such as calcium-fortified juice, soymilk, or rice milk daily as a milk alternate, regardless of whether a student proves lactose intolerance or shows another medical, religious, or dietary need.
"Sixty to eighty percent of African Americans are lactose intolerant. School lunches are high in fat and cholesterol from dairy products. Many children are allergic to these products, don’t know it and must return to class with stomach aches," said Ms. Keller.
PCRM recommends that the commodities program be restructured to stop using school lunch purchases to promote beef, cheese, pork, and other high-fat, high- cholesterol foods and, instead, to favor fruits and vegetables.
"My children eat school lunches and I expected them to be healthy. I was shocked to learn they aren’t," said Sandra Johnson, a parent with children in New York’s public schools. "We have to do better for the children because some parents can’t do better than the school breakfast and lunch program."