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COMMENTARY: Big Agriculture: the school lunch bully

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Posted: Sunday, January 12, 2014 12:00 am

The National School Lunch Program is failing to protect children. Whatever benevolent intentions it might have once offered, I do not believe that it combats malnutrition nor address the rising rates of childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes. It does not promote health nor instill good eating habits. In fact, the program does little more than allow the meat and dairy industry to bully children into eating junk food.

And yet another knockout blow was delivered to children’s health on Jan. 3 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it would permanently weaken restrictions on the amount of meat that can be served in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). This move essentially eliminates upper limits that were set by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

As a registered dietitian, I see this as a devastating, regressive decision. It’s a smack in the face to food service teams striving to improve the nutrition of school lunches and to those of us who have worked for years to release school lunches from the meat industry’s deadly grip. Most of all, it’s an insult to children who truly deserve nutritious, healthful meals.

One need only look at the home states of the members of Congress who pushed for this change to uncover the meat industry’s influence: North Dakota, Arkansas, South Dakota and Kansas.

Ever since its inception in 1946, the NSLP has served as a guaranteed market for excess agricultural commodities — mainly meat and dairy. When times were tough, farmers relied on the government to purchase their products and funnel them into school children’s stomachs.

The system remains largely the same as it was 50 years ago, except that times are anything but tough for meat and dairy producers. Agribusinesses have become so wealthy and powerful that it keeps government funds flowing in and commodities flowing out — straight into school lunches.

This may seem like a win-win but it’s resulting in children getting cheap meals and Big Ag getting big bucks.

Many Americans also don’t realize that meat- and dairy-laden school meals are making children sick and setting them up for a lifelong battle with chronic diseases.

According to a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, school lunch consumption and TV viewing were the two activities most strongly linked to obesity among middle school children. Another study found that children who consume school lunches are more likely to be obese than those who bring their lunches to school.

More than one-third of American children are overweight or obese. These children are at a far greater risk for a variety of physical and psychological problems. They are more likely to be obese as adults and are at a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, cancer, hypertension, heart disease and even Alzheimer’s disease.

Animal-based foods contain unhealthy amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol and meat consumption has been solidly linked to an increased risk for obesity and other diet-related chronic diseases. Those who cut down on meat and dairy products are slimmer, healthier and live longer.

Public health groups, parents and schools across the country have taken note of the health benefits that plant-based diets provide. A “Meatless Monday” movement, which encourages the consumption of meat-free meals one day per week, has now been implemented in hundreds of schools, including large districts like Los Angeles, Baltimore and Detroit. Last year, a New York elementary school became the first U.S. public school to eliminate all meat from its menus.

These grassroots efforts are a tremendous step toward healthy school lunches. But until the USDA stands up to Big Ag, the meat and dairy industry will continue to beat up on our children’s health in the school lunch line.

Susan Levin is  director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

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