Tater Tots Aren't Vegetables: Why Do We Feed Our Kids Crap?

After eating bagel dogs, tater tots and gloppy cheese sandwiches every day for a year, the brave teacher known as Mrs. Q shared what she learned on her blog Fed Up With Lunch: "The quality of school lunches has declined" since she was a kid and "the USDA guidelines are warped."

Why are French fries and tater tots counted as vegetables, fruit jello cups and frozen juice bars counted as fruit, and so many grains required that schools have to serve combinations like rice with bread? Mrs. Q concludes after her year of school lunches that "our nation's school lunch program is broken" and what we need is more than just money for better food -- fresh food. As she puts it, "We must invest in our 'lunch ladies' and teach them how to cook properly" -- not just reheat food as they do now. Fixing school lunch will take more than just money, but without money, schools can't afford the food, training, labor, equipment and supplies needed to revamp their lunch programs.

Fortunately, Congress is in the process of re-authorizing school lunch. Will they be able to fix it? This month, Rep. George Miller, chair of the House Education and Labor committee, teamed with other members of Congress and Food Network's Rachael Ray to unveil his child nutrition bill, a bill reauthorizing the school lunch program, WIC (a nutrition program for low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women and children under five), and other child nutrition programs. As was expected, his bill, giving child nutrition an additional $8 billion over 10 years, was far more generous than the corresponding Senate bill, which only gave child nutrition $4.5 billion. Neither, however, supplied the full $10 billion requested by Barack Obama, and both fell far short of the amount requested by child nutrition advocates.

The bills were not without merit. They do a fantastic job increasing the number of hungry children who will be eligible for free lunches by calling for "direct certification" -- automatically enrolling children in the lunch program if they are already enrolled in other programs for low-income Americans (like Medicaid, SCHIP or food stamps) -- and universal free lunches in high poverty areas. And it makes all the sense in the world that a school spending a large amount of money on paperwork to enroll the majority of its students in the lunch program could better spend its precious dollars by skipping the paperwork entirely and instead feeding all of the children, whether they qualify for free lunch or not. (This also has the effect of removing the stigma of taking a federal handout, so that no child will go hungry because it isn't cool to eat a free lunch in front of wealthier, paying peers.) Furthermore, by reducing the paperwork burden of schools, the bill aims to shift schools' costs away from administration, freeing up money to spend on healthy food or feeding more children.

And yet, what is the benefit of feeding more children the same poor quality, unhealthy food the lunch program receives widespread criticism for serving? The School Nutrition Association, which receives funding from many of the corporations that sell unhealthy foods to schools for their lunches, has called for adding 35 cents to the "reimbursement rate" (the amount schools receive per free lunch served) just to make up for the amount of money schools are losing by serving lunches. Reformers like Renegade Lunch Lady Ann Cooper say the government should add a dollar to the reimbursement rate. The House and Senate bills each provide a meager 6 cents. The government cares enough to keep children from starving, but not enough to provide them with nutritious meals.

To be fair, there are concrete benefits to feeding hungry bellies, even with unhealthy food. Currently, schools in high poverty areas see nurse visits and absenteeism go down when the number of kids eating school food goes up. When the choice is bad food or no food, bad food is better. But what happens when the children are served good food? When Jamie Oliver reformed the meals in the UK, the result was reduced absenteeism and improved test scores. Oliver told the Guardian, "Even while doing the program, we could see benefits to children's health and teachers. We could see that asthmatic kids weren't having to use the school inhalers so often, for example. We could see that [the healthy lunches] made them calmer and therefore able to learn." And those are just the short-term benefits.

In the long-term, we know what the costs will be of not improving school food. For example, one quarter of 17- to 24-year-olds are currently too overweight to serve in the U.S. military. The health of our young people is literally a national security issue, just as it was when the school lunch program was started in the 1940s (when it was intended to prevent the widespread malnutrition common in the Great Depression that kept many young men from serving during World War II).

Additionally, current projections expect a third of children born in 2000 to develop diabetes during the course of their lives. (There's no hard data that school lunches in particular lead to diabetes, but consider that a child eating school breakfast and lunch eats 10 out of 21 meals at school each week. It's hard to believe their future health is not significantly impacted by school meals.) Type II diabetes can result in blindness, kidney failure, heart disease and amputations -- and it costs a small fortune to treat. In fact, many of the top 10 most expensive medical conditions are diet-related, including diabetes, hypertension and heart conditions. On average, heart conditions cost nearly $1,000 per person each year, and diabetes costs more than double that. Compare that to the cost of increasing the amount spent on each lunch by one dollar -- only $180 per child. That's a bargain.

Given the obvious benefits of improving school food, why did Congress only propose a measly 6 cents? Perhaps this is what one would expect from conservative Senate Agriculture Committee chair Sen. Blanche Lincoln, but certainly not from Rep. George Miller in the House. And, most likely, Miller understands the issues and wishes to provide the lunch program with the money it needs. But he's only the committee chair, and he's subject to the rules put in place by House leadership. It's there we must look to find out why children's long-term health is not a priority for this Democratic Congress.

Surf on over to Majorityleader.gov, the Web site of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and you'll find a host of pages on "fiscal responsibility." Congress is currently operating under a strategy known as "pay-as-you-go" or PAYGO for short, a strategy Hoyer is a champion of (and one that Obama supports). Under PAYGO, every time Congress increases spending somewhere, it must pay for it by decreasing spending or increasing revenues (taxes) elsewhere. That means that Congress cannot increase spending on school lunches without making cuts (or adding taxes) somewhere else. The Senate financed its $4.5 billion increase in child nutrition programs by cutting conservation spending. The House has not yet said where it would find its $8 billion increase in child nutrition spending.

Those who say the deficit must be addressed now via PAYGO ignore the basic principles of Keynesian economics. John Maynard Keynes, the economist most credited with bringing the U.S. out of the Great Depression, encouraged increased government spending -- even deficit spending -- during economic downturns. Recall that GDP is calculated as consumer spending plus investment by businesses plus government spending plus net exports. When consumers and businesses tighten their belts and spend less, the government can increase spending to jumpstart the economy once again. That was the very idea behind last year's stimulus package, which provided for targeted spending on infrastructure, food stamps and other programs that would most create jobs and result in immediate spending to help the economy recover.

Keynes knew that in a downturn, people are earning less so they also pay less in taxes. Simultaneously, more people qualify for entitlements (like food stamps or Medicaid), pushing up government spending. An austerity budget to fix the deficit now will prevent the government from spending what is necessary to bring back our economy. Once the economy recovers, the opposite will be true, and we will be more able to fix the deficit then.

In the specific case of school lunches, an austerity budget (and unhealthy food) now will result in massive increases in spending in the future when a generation of children raised on unhealthy food becomes a generation of unhealthy adults with costly, chronic illnesses. Some say they don't want to pass the deficit onto their children. But what child, when they are diagnosed with diabetes at age 25, would say "Thank you for balancing the budget by saving money on my school meals"?


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