Shannon Green: School lunch fight devalues low-income children
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Shannon Green: School lunch fight devalues low-income children

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Shannon Green

Green

School lunches are under attack, again.

Which also means children living in poverty are taking the most direct hit, again, since they make up the majority of students who eat school lunches.

The Trump administration wants to roll back improved nutritional standards for school lunches championed by former first lady Michelle Obama in 2010.

The Healthy Kids Act pushed for more fruit and vegetable options and servings in school cafeterias to combat the climbing childhood obesity rate, which partly accounts for the rise in Type 2 diabetes among youth and contributes to depression.

But U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced proposed rule changes (on the former first lady’s 56th birthday earlier this month) that allows schools to cut back on leafy green vegetables in favor of potatoes to cut down on wasted food.

Kids prefer brown vegetables like french fries over salad. And since kids love fries, we must serve what they want.

No responsible parent allows children to dictate a daily menu of fries, pizza and ice cream. And yet, our administration is pushing a rule that caves to kids’ cravings and the potato industry’s interests.

The rule proposal also allows meat alternatives like nut butters, beans and soy protein foods to replace vegetables instead of actual vegetables. The amount of fruit served at breakfast can be lowered, as well as mandatory whole-grain servings. Requirements on red and orange vegetables will likely be subbed for brown “vegetables” like tater tots.

Students would also have more options to buy food items a la carte, promoting the chance for kids to buy more unhealthy combinations rather than a plated meal that would include at least a vegetable and fruit.

There’s nothing wrong with kids enjoying fun food in moderation. I’m all for food choices.

But when we’re talking about kids, some of those choices need to be guided by wise adults in government and local school boards, who should consider the health risks of enjoying too many “brown vegetables.”

This isn’t some silly food fight between Democrats and Republicans. This is about making sure kids, particularly kids from economically disadvantaged homes across the country, get exposed to more healthy foods so they can perform in the classroom and develop healthy habits.

Let’s not forget, the rise in childhood obesity happened to spike in the ‘80s and ‘90s when Ronald Reagan’s administration torpedoed the federal budget for school lunches, allowing more private companies — who could skirt federal guidelines for nutrition in favor of cheaper, processed foods — to move into schools. This was after previous presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon rightly increased spending for school lunches, as Time magazine’s food historian documented.

The Obama administration’s 2010 policy brought more nutrition-forward standards back for the first time in more than a decade and fought the childhood obesity epidemic threatening to cut their lives short.

Now, the administration is retreating on something as important and basic as introducing kids to healthy food.

This is shameful.

Even worse, these rollbacks hurt children from low-income households the most.

Out of the 30 million kids who get school lunches each day, about 22 million come from economically disadvantaged homes, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Kids who live in low-income areas almost always reside in food deserts, areas that have limited access to affordable and nutritious food.

For many kids, that means the most nutritionally balanced meal of the day is served during school hours. And the largest group of students who participate in the National School Lunch Program are elementary students, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Presenting kids with healthy cafeteria choices doesn’t mean they’ll choose salad over french fries every time. And that’s OK.

I expect kids to pick fries and hamburgers more than wraps and salads.

There’s a marketing rule that says it takes 27 impressions of a brand before a prospect responds. McDonald’s got the head start on claiming nuggets, hamburgers and french fries as the happiest meal. Vegetables and fruit haven’t had the best marketing campaigns.

But giving up on good choices just because kids aren’t leaping toward the salad first is just lazy. And so is this rule, which would give local school boards the chance to vote on adopting these lazy rules.

Food waste is a problem and has always been, even before 2010. But the solution to food waste is being more creative, like Triangle Elementary School in Mount Dora, Fla.

The school has a garden and brings its homegrown produce into the cafeteria a few times a week so students and teachers can have a salad bar. According to Lake County School Board Chairman Kristi Burns, the salad bar is a hit.

“I’ve always, with my own children, followed the advice of if you provide it, they will eat it,” she said.

Burns said if the rule passes, the board would conduct its own research with health experts first before any vote.

No matter what happens, there are ways to balance the need to cut down on food waste without sacrificing nutrition. And there is room for fiscally responsible Democrats and compassionate Republicans to agree on this issue as long as we remember who is at the head of this table — our kids.

Shannon Green is an Opinions columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. She can be reached at sgreen@orlandosentinel.com and @iamshannongreen.

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