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Are School Lunches Setting Kids Up for Obesity and Poor Nutrition?

The Obamas are taking on childhood obesity by tackling problems with the National School Lunch Program. But will their fixes be enough?
 
 
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Michelle Obama launched her "Let's Move" campaign to fight obesity with a flood of media attention and a Presidential Memorandum, signed by her husband, establishing a new Task Force on Childhood Obesity. But how does the rhetoric of the Let's Move campaign stack up against what President Obama's administration is actually doing to address childhood obesity? While many of the president's priorities have lost steam in Congress, tackling childhood obesity is thankfully not one of them. But are the administration's efforts on the right track?

While the First Lady has been a champion for healthy, sustainable food since the creation of her historic garden in her first days in the White House, the title of her campaign, Let's Move, rings of food industry influence.

After all, junk food manufacturers have long advocated that Americans can eat whatever they want, so long as they work out afterward. (The industry-favored term for this is "energy balance.") Such an outlook carelessly ignores nutrients that contribute to good health, putting 100 calories of French fries on par with 100 calories of fruit. It also ignores the simple fact that, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture numbers, Americans today eat more than they did in the past -- over 500 calories more per day, if you compare 1970 with 2006. So, just moving is not going to solve our obesity epidemic, especially in kids.

While there are many factors that contribute to children being overweight, the big kahuna of the child obesity debate is our National School Lunch Program. Each day, approximately 10 percent of the American population participates in the National School Lunch Program, eating at least one meal that was entirely governed by federal policies. For some kids, school meals (breakfast and lunch) contribute over half of their calories for the day. The day-to-day decisions are in the hands of individual school districts and schools, but the parameters that govern the program and determine what can and can't be served are decided at a federal level. The USDA sets nutrition standards for school meals and even provides about one-fifth of the food served in school cafeterias. Congress determines the amount spent on each meal and oversees the USDA's administration of the program.

As it happens, Michelle Obama announced Let's Move at an extremely opportune time to influence the school lunch program, because the entire program is up for reauthorization in Congress this year. Furthermore, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recently proposed new federal nutrition standards for school lunches and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently announced his intent to implement them.

Several aspects of the school lunch program require examination and (hopefully) reform. The Obama administration should be commended for aiming to adopt the IOM's recommendations, which would increase the amount of fruits and vegetables served to students and specify that dark green and bright orange vegetables as well as legumes are served during the course of each week. (Under the current standards, fruits and vegetables are interchangeable.) The new standards also call for an increase in whole grains served and it sets a maximum amount of calories per lunch. (Current standards only specify a minimum number of calories.)

Additionally, the Obama administration seeks to reform a decades-old loophole that restricts the USDA's ability to exercise any control over the a la carte items served in cafeterias or school vending machines. With executive branch support for such a change, it's likely that Congress will act, giving the USDA the authority to regulate any food served in schools during school hours. It's shameful that federal nutrition standards over school lunch are as lax as they are, but it speaks volumes that the Obama administration is the first in a long line of administrations willing to make the necessary changes.

 
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