School lunches are now being used as a political ping pong ball in Washington D.C. Earlier this week, Michelle Obama made an impassioned statement in the New York Times and at an event for nutrition experts in schools, about the need for public school lunches everywhere to be of a high quality and standard.
Regardless, a Republican-backed measure to scale back on some standards for school lunches was moved forward by a House committee on Thursday. The vote cut right down party lines, 29-22. The vote by The House Appropriations Committee was to maintain a provision that allows for some districts to basically opt out of requirements that would reduce sodium levels and increase fresh vegetables, fruits and whole grains. The vote was part of a debate over funds for the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the arm of government that oversees federal school lunches. The measure would require that the federal government give waivers to school lunch programs that have been operating for more than six months at a net loss.
Passed in 2010 by Congress, the current lunch standards have been a major part of The First Lady’s promotion of exercising and eating healthy foods. Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said on Thursday that the appropriators had chosen politics over nutrition.
Some of the arguments made against the new standards are that they are too complicated and leading to waste. Apparently, the kids are throwing away the fresh vegetables and fruits that they are now being served. Alabama Representative Robert Aderholt is the leading Republican advocating for the provision to opt-out. He said that many schools are overwhelmed, the regulations being too quick and too much.
Democrats made the argument that these new standards are required in order to make any dents in the worsening obesity issue. The main Democrat overseeing agricultural spending, Sam Farr of California, said that it would be short-sighted to slacken standards simply due to a few officials who were challenged by the improved standards. Farr added, “We don’t tell kids you don’t have to take math if it’s hard.”
Some analysts have found it interesting to note that the School Nutrition Association (SNA), while leading the fight to scale back the new standards, has many of the largest food producers as financial benefactors. According to their website, almost 90 corporations, like Sara Lee Foodservice and Domino’s Pizza, pay $10,500 a year to be patron-level members. The Center for Responsive Politics has data from 2013 showing that $39.8 million was spent on lobbying regulators and Congress by food processing industry businesses.
The director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Margo Wootan, said that the power of the SNA does not come from Lunch Ladies so much as it does the big businesses who pay large sums of money to belong to the SNA. Wootan recognizes the challenge of getting students t o eat heir fruits and vegetables, but adds that there needs to be greater effort to make these foods more attractive to them.
A spokesperson for the SNA, Diane Pratt-Heavner claims that 522 corporate members is a small percentage of their overall membership of 55,000. She said that the already tight budgets are further strained under the weight of a large volume of wasted food. Pratt-Heavner added that she feels that the students should be encouraged to make healthier choices “not force them to take items they do not intend to eat.”
Michelle Obama, based on empirical evidence, may be right. This nation’s eating habits, overall, are deplorable. The best way to fix that is through the young people. Unfortunately, the execution of these new standards has been sub-par. There needs to be greater effort put into making the healthy food more palatable.
Nutrition, however, is about more than just school lunches. Every school should either have a garden or access to one in the community, in order to help students truly grasp what is at stake here. Gardening is an awesome teaching tool, form of exercise and a way for students to feel engaged and invested in what they eat.
Rather than haggling over the amounts of salt and apples being served, both Democrats and Republicans might be better served asking how even more improvements can be made. Using the lunch program as a political ping pong ball is on the face of it an egregious act against the children of the nation.
Opinion By Stacy Lamy