Healthier School Lunches are… Now Less Healthy

Healthier School Lunches are… Now Less Healthy

Over the past week I’ve been looking at Michelle Obama’s changes to school lunches.  I’ve looked at what changes she has made, what criticisms have come out, and if they’ve been effective.  But it’s hard to know if something has been effective if it hasn’t even been given a chance.  And Michelle Obama’s school lunch program hasn’t been given that chance.  It has been watered down before it even began.

Almost as soon as the new nutritional requirements went into effect, lawmakers lifted limits on carbohydrates and meats in meals, allowing school lunch planners to include as much meat and grains as they’d like.  The caloric limits remain in place, but now the limits on how much meat and carbs can be included has been lifted.  Already, carbohydrate limits were at 60% of the meal, which is pretty high to start with.  Now, kids can get even more carbohydrates.  Not to mention that meat consumption is related to a whole host of diseases, meaning that the more kids eat the higher their likelihood of becoming sick.  Giving kids more meat and grains is definitely watering down the nutrition restrictions that made Michelle Obama’s new school lunch plan more healthy than its predecessor.

2014 was supposed to herald the introduction of 100% whole grains into school lunches, but it was not to be.  Mid-year, Congress allowed schools to delay the introduction of 100% whole grains for up to 2 years if they can demonstrate “significant challenges” in preparing the whole grain options.  Bread and rolls don’t seem to be much of an issues, as they have been on the market for so long that companies have created plenty of palatable options (although the amount of sugar in the 100% whole wheat offerings today make me shudder).  But other products, like pasta, grits, biscuits, and tortillas have not been so thoroughly tested and finessed by companies, which previously had little motivation to do so.

Schools complain the whole wheat offerings don’t taste the same as the highly refined and processed alternatives, so kids don’t like them as much.  And food service staff don’t know how to prepare the healthier options.  So schools have been given a reprieve of two years to figure out how to implement the 100% whole grain mandate.  Of course, in two years’ time the situation could easily repeat itself…

Of course, everything could change again this year.  The school lunch program is up for renewal in 2015 and with a Republican-controlled Congress, there is a pretty high likelihood it will change significantly.  Let’s not forget that it is primarily Republicans shooting down the requirements.  Conservative lawmakers call the nutrition standards “government overreach,” which is anathema to their agenda.

Personally, I think the healthcare crisis in America stems largely from the overall poor nutrition of the population.  To me that crisis speaks of a failure of the government to intervene when it needs to, not the other way around.  A crisis that dramatically affects not only our entire economy but also our health is at once both deeply personal but also starkly political.  If governments regulated corporations selling unhealthy foods and made them accountable for the effects of their products, then we wouldn’t have this crisis in the first place.  What a shame that an attempt to fix the problem at its root, even if not as effective as we’d like, is being undermined before it has even truly begun.

The only solution is to lobby our representatives in government to stand up for healthier standards.


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