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

Personal Health

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.

However, the Obama administration should not stop there. Even with current weak nutrition standards, only 30 percent of schools serve lunches that meet the saturated fat standard and only 6 to 7 percent of schools serve lunches meeting all of the government's standards. Presumably, raising the bar alone will result in fewer schools meeting federal standards, not more. The government needs to find out why schools are failing to serve healthy lunches and then work to provide them with the tools they need to do so.

In some cases, the Obama administration is already on it. For example, Vilsack recently called for more grants to help schools upgrade their kitchen equipment. Kitchens equipped to do little more than reheat food are one of the reasons school lunches are so poor. Grant money to upgrade kitchens can lead to healthier school food, particularly if enough money is allocated in the grant program to reach a large number of schools.

However, federal oversight should be exercised to ensure that the kitchen upgrades actually lead to healthier foods. A recent Washington Post column described a D.C. school kitchen that was upgraded to serve "fresh cooked" meals but actually did little more than assembling and heating unhealthy, processed ingredients. Baked ziti consisted of beef crumbles ("grayish-brown bits of extruded meat and soy protein") mixed with egg noodles and "a six-pound can of pale-looking spaghetti sauce" containing "dextrose and/or high-fructose corn syrup [and] potato or corn starch," topped with cheese. Clearly, kitchen equipment is needed but it's just a first step toward reform.

Vilsack also calls for providing more commodities (food purchased by the USDA and provided directly to schools), particularly to the school breakfast program. USDA-provided food will certainly help schools stretch the approximately $1 per meal they have to spend on food (the rest of their money goes to equipment and labor), but it won't help schools meet nutrition goals unless the USDA provides nutritious food.

Unfortunately, this is currently not the case. The commodities the USDA provides to schools make up about 20 percent of food served in lunches. A review of commodities provided to California schools found that a few items comprise the majority of commodities provided: coarse and fine ground raw beef (26 percent), low moisture part skim & light mozzarella (13 percent), small and large chilled chickens (11 percent), and barrels, blocks and slices of yellow or white cheddar cheese (10 percent). In fact, USDA commodities provided for school lunches turn the USDA's own food pyramid on its head. Whereas the food pyramid recommends a diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, the USDA usually provides schools with meat and dairy products often high in saturated fat. Only 13 percent of commodities provided are fruits and vegetables (including fruit juice and legumes) -- and about half of the vegetables provided are potatoes.

The problem with commodities is two-fold. It's true that schools choose to order highly processed items from the USDA, but the USDA also offers very few healthy options. Of the 44 listed meats offered, only six are described as lean. Only 11 percent of fruits offered do not contain added sugars, and only 19 percent of grains offered were whole grains. And over half of the commodities go to processing facilities before they reach schools, frequently adding salt, sugar or trans fat to the food.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (author of the study that revealed this information) recommends that Congress "set a required proportion among the major food groups to which school districts must adhere when ordering commodities" to bring the commodities back in balance with the government's own nutrition recommendations. They also ask that the USDA "improve the nutritional quality of individual commodities, aligning them with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans."

In other words, if the government recommends choosing lean meats, the USDA should actually offer schools lean meats. They agree with Vilsack's call for increased grant money for kitchen upgrades, but they add that the upgrades should specifically focus on equipping kitchens to store and prepare fruits and vegetables (like refrigeration space, knives and cutting boards).

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, Congress is currently considering the future of the "reimbursement rate" -- the amount the government reimburses schools for each child who eats school breakfast or lunch. The funds come from the federal government because the National School Lunch Program is a federal program. The government reimburses schools the most for students who qualify for free lunch (students whose parents make 135 percent of the federal poverty rate or less), slightly less for students who qualify for reduced cost lunch (students whose parents make 135 to 185 percent of the federal poverty rate), and less still for students who buy the school lunch. Unless a school district receives additional money from the state (as some do), the federal reimbursement rate determines how much the schools can spend on each lunch.

Currently, the government spends $2.68 for each child who qualifies for free lunch, totaling $8.7 billion for 5.1 billion lunches served in 2007. President Obama previously proposed spending an extra $1 billion on school lunches, but his 2011 budget splits the money between the school lunch program and another program. Because some of the 5.1 billion lunches are served to children who pay for their lunch, it's uncertain how far Obama's budgeted $1 billion would go to increase the reimbursement rate.

The School Nutrition Association, a group that receives funding from some of the same corporations that sell processed foods to schools, wants an extra 35 cents per lunch. Others, like Slow Food and "Renegade Lunch Lady" Ann Cooper, say we need to provide schools with an extra dollar per meal. A House Democratic aide noted that the $1 billion commitment from Obama is a significant and historic increase in funding relative to the total budget of the child nutrition programs (projected at $18.4 billion for the 2011 fiscal year). According to the aide, Congress is following a "PAYGO" (pay-as-you-go) budget strategy, which was signed into law by the president on February 12, 2010 so they will be unable to allocate more resources to school lunch unless they can find another area of the budget they can cut to offset that investment.

President Obama and the First Lady have demonstrated their commitment, however, to taking action and making an investment to improve children's health and preventing obesity. Congress and the administration are also looking for ways to use our existing resources more efficiently, such as by helping schools reduce administrative costs for school lunch so that as much money as possible can go to buying and preparing healthy food.

With extra money to spend on each meal, schools can purchase higher quality foods. Junk food often provides calories cheaper than healthy food and schools are required to serve at least a minimum number of calories. Thus, choosing fried, fatty or sugary foods allows them to meet their calorie minimum for a lower price. Perhaps that's why so few schools meet the USDA's nutrition standards. Healthy foods also often require more preparation, which means skilled labor or equipment. An increase in the reimbursement rate (in addition to equipment grants) could help schools afford this. Also, with the reimbursement rate at $2.68, each lunch served adds so little to schools' overheads that they must serve as many meals as possible. Thus, they often opt for kid-friendly meals like corn dogs, tater tots, or other unhealthy fast foods. If they weren't so pressured to sell as many meals as possible, they would have more room to offer healthy choices even if it meant a decline in sales.

Perhaps the most hopeful part of the Obama administration's stated goals is its push for increased farm-to-school programs, bringing more local, healthy food into our schools. Debra Eschmeyer, spokesperson for the National Farm to School Network, said:

We can move closer to a healthier generation by moving closer to what is on our children's trays through programs such as Farm to School. Secretary Vilsack emphasized the significance of support for Farm to School programs recently, which the USDA has put a backbone to with a seven person Farm to School Tactical Team working to link local farms to schools. Farm to School meals result in consumption of more fruits and vegetables with an average increase of one serving per day, including at home. And for every dollar spent on local foods in schools, one to three dollars circulate in the local economy. It's a win-win solution just like Let's Move.

But even a generous allocation like $50 million for Farm to School is still a drop in the bucket compared to the $8.7 billion spent on all of school lunches, and a broader solution to inadequacies in the school lunch program is clearly needed.

The entire Obama administration -- and especially the First Lady -- deserve credit for tackling such an important issue and making several long overdue reforms. However, they seem entirely unwilling to confront junk food manufacturers head on. Even the labels on the campaign ("Let's Move" and "Task Force on Childhood Obesity") obscure the true problems with nutrition by putting the blame on overeating and lack of exercise. Obesity is not our problem, it's only a symptom of our unhealthy lifestyles and a predictor of a host of diet-related illnesses. Yet stating that would show that our real fight is not against childhood obesity itself (and certainly not against obese people) -- it's against those who make, market and sell unhealthy foods to children.

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