Congress flunks lunch in nutrition battle

May 29, 2014 

The following editorial appears on Bloomberg View:

Students learn about good nutrition in school. They just don’t get a lot. Now the House of Representatives is threatening to sabotage an effort to address that failure.

New federal standards for school lunches, phased in over the last two years, set a calorie cap for meals, encourage kids to eat whole grains and require them to put a fruit or vegetable on their plate. (No, they don’t have to eat it.) This is too much for some House Republicans, who have taken up the cause of finicky eaters with a zeal once reserved for Soviet dissidents or Mitt Romney. “Kids are saying they don’t want this,” Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said last week. “You are trying to force them to eat things they don’t want.”

To be clear, no one is forcing anyone to eat anything. Unlike some other congressional debates, this is not about the use of force. The issue is how best to fight obesity, which has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the United States in the last 30 years.

Better school lunches won’t reduce obesity all by themselves. But the obesity problem cannot be addressed without changing how children eat in school, where they consume half their calories. In the age-old battle between grown-ups and kids about eating better, schools and parents need to work together.

House members say the school lunch program, mandated by a 2010 law, is already a failure because some students stopped buying lunches and others are throwing away the fruits and vegetables uneaten. They say some schools and food providers need more time to adjust to the new rules.

Yet 90 percent of schools are now meeting the standards, and the Department of Agriculture says it is working to help the rest catch up. And as any parent can attest, all children resist eating new things. (Note to parents: It’s not you! Children are programmed that way.) In fact, nutritionists recommend the very strategy the USDA is using: Just keep putting that broccoli on the plate, and don’t worry if the kids eat it. Eventually enough of them will.

There’s also evidence to suggest the tales of healthy-food rejection and waste are exaggerated. In a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, food waste in four schools was no greater after the reforms than before, and vegetable consumption increased by 16.2 percent.

Of course, ensuring that students eat well in the cafeteria does only so much good if they are gorging on brownies and sodas bought in school bake sales and vending machines. That’s why in 2014-15, nutritional standards will apply to all foods and beverages sold on campuses during the school day, and extend to breakfasts as well. Those rules will no doubt be opposed by extracurricular groups that use food sales for fundraising – the marching bands, theater troupes and student governments, not to mention parent and alumni associations.

Everyone wants to be the exception to the rules. That’s all the more reason for Congress to reject this attempt to water down school nutrition.

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