MARIETTA, Ga. – As schools across the country continue to struggle to comply with food restrictions championed by first lady Michelle Obama, supporters of the federal regulations are reframing the issue as one of national security.
Retired rear admiral Casey Coane recently wrote in to The Hill to make the case for why school food restrictions on fat, sugar, salt, calories and other nutritional aspects are necessary to keep our country safe.
“As a retired rear admiral, I view the school lunch program as one of our most important assets in the battle against obesity, which is a major problem for the military because almost one in three young adults in the U.S. is too overweight to serve,” Coane wrote.
“Healthy eating and exercise habits start at home, but schools should be a focal point in combating childhood obesity because many kids get up to half of their daily calories at school. The good news is that 90 percent of schools nationwide are implementing updated nutrition standards through the bipartisan Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that replaced fattening, salt- and sugar-ridden foods with whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean proteins.”
But just because school replace some foods for others, doesn’t mean students will eat the “healthy” food. Despite reports from schools in many states that students are simply dumping their government-mandated fruits and vegetables in the garbage, Coane points to recent studies to the contrary.
“Plate waste (food thrown away) has always been a part of cafeteria lunch programs and is often cited by detractors from the new lunch standards,” Coane writes.
“Yet a study published just this week by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity showed that when the new guidelines went into effect, students ate nearly 20 percent more of the entrees and 40 percent more of the vegetables they took, effectively decreasing the amount thrown away. The study also showed that 22 percent more children chose to add fruit to their plates and that fruit consumption has remained high.”
But the Rudd Center report directly conflicts with the Government Accountability Office, which has also issued a report that “paints a fairly bleak picture of school districts trying to adapt to the revised USDA nutrition standards …,” The Washington Post reports.
“According to the GAO report, local and state authorities told researchers the new standards have resulted in more waste, higher food costs, challenges with menu planning and difficulties in sourcing products that meet the federal portion and calorie requirements,” the Post reports.
“The GAO researchers based their findings on historical data as well as on 2013 surveys and interviews with state child nutrition directors and food service providers at eight school districts across the country. They also observed lunches and spoke with students.
That’s a lot more research than the Rudd Center conducted in its “study,” according to U.S. News and World Report.
The Rudd “study showed the percent of student choosing fruit with lunch increased from 54 percent to 66 percent. Students also are eating 84 percent of their healthier entrees, up from 74 percent in 2012,” when the federal regulations were imposed on schools.
“But the study was limited to 12 schools in one district,” the news site notes. “Anecdotally, may education professionals say they still see a lot of waste. Students have held boycotts against cafeterias, and often post photos of their lunches on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama.”
“It’s only good nutrition if you’re eating it,” Carol Weekly, nutrition director at Queen Creek Unified School District in Arizona, told U.S. News.
The waste, however, is only one of the problems with the new regulations
The USDA expects the regulations to cost schools $1.2 billion in food and work expenses this school year, according to the news site.
And while many school lunch programs are struggling to survive with far fewer students purchasing lunch, others have simply given up and forfeited federal funds to serve students foods they’ll actually eat.
“The majority of the nation’s public and non-profit schools – roughly 95 percent, or 100,000 – participate in the School Lunch Program, but about 500 schools dropped out because of the new meal standards. They cited factors such as increasing costs, resource constraints and plate waste. Data show many of the schools were small, affluent, private or charter schools, or Residential Child Care Institutions,” U.S. News reports.
But Coane believes those problems pale in comparison to the threat childhood obesity poses to the country’s security, and American schools should just suck it up.
“We should continue to support with dollars and training any schools that are having a tougher time serving healthier meals, but like our armed forces, we should not stop when the going gets tough,” Coane wrote.
“We need to keep these school nutrition standards on track because when our children’s health and our national security are at stake, retreat is not an option.”