Nick Offerman, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Why We Need Pay Attention NOW to School Lunches


Living a healthy life depends in good part on knowing how to eat well and having access to healthy food choices. K-12 Schools seem a logical place to make that happen for America’s kids.

The American Heart Association (AHA) certainly thinks so. In their recently released video starring Nick Offerman they take a cynical look at what some people might have us believe about the types of food that can end up in school lunches.

The AHA’s video is yet another line in the ever growing conversation about school lunches. The Obama Administration's Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) implemented new school lunch standards in 2010. While thoughts of school are most likely far from the minds of students this summer, school lunch is making headlines as one of the more contentious political issues. HHFKA and the Child Nutrition Act are up for big revisions this fall.

A few weeks ago, we explained how the debate over school lunch programs is being framed as  free-market versus regulatory. On the one hand, there is a camp of people—opponents of the HHFKA—who argue that states, municipalities and individual schools should be able to decide what goes into their school lunches based on what works best for their budgets. On the other hand, there is a camp of people—supporters of the HHFKA—who argue that implementing nationally mandated standards is the only the ensure that students are getting proper nutrition. In the first camp, there is a strong contingent in Congress wants to see HHFKA gutted. Lydia Wheeler at The Hill summarizes that viewpoint into two major gripes:

• School officials say students are turning their noses up to the meals that cap calories and limit sodium.

• Republicans also assail the standards as executive overreach.”

Providing support for these arguments, some reports contend that students are dropping out of the school lunch program “by the millions,” which, if true, questions the efficacy of the program. Another complaint, according to Karen Stillerman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, is that sodium reductions will cause a sodium deficit in our kids (this one, is a bit of a stretch when you consider the high rate of sodium consumption amongst children).

As nutrition scientist/commentator Marion Nestle has explained, part of the the backlash against the HHFKA is backed by the lobbying power of the School Nutrition Association, a once noble organization that has arguably been co-opted by Big Food corporate interests. (Note: Stillerman has a great series on the SNA and the positions that it is taking on school lunch.)

To dissuade these anti-HHFKA sentiments, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has stepped in. Aside from citing research and public opinion polls in support of the HHFKA, he also makes a sound economic argument in his recent op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune:

This is not only a question of what's right or wrong for kids. It's also a national security and an economic issue. One in five young adults is too overweight to serve in the military. The cost of treating obesity-related illnesses drags down our economy and increases budget deficits. If we don't continue to invest in our children, this generation will be the first to live shorter lives than their parents.”

Vilsack frames the issue in a much larger context than HHFKA’s opponents, pointing out that schools are our first line of defense for protecting our nation against the exorbitant costs (economically and otherwise) of poor health.

Another benefit of robust school lunch programs can be employment (here’s an example from India, and although in a foreign country, it is a reminder of some of the external opportunities school lunch programs can afford). And another is the fantastic educational opportunities afforded through farm-to-school programs (like this example from Oregon).

Lindsey Haynes-Maslow of Beyond Chron analyzes how much school lunch costs have indeed risen over the last five years, but they have increased in tandem with national-average costs for food and labor. Haynes-Maslow contends that HHFKA opponents are asking for more flexibility in their school lunch programs, but the real issue is funding:

With rising food costs everywhere, increased need for free meals, and the additional labor costs it takes to serve healthy food, one thing is for sure: schools need more financial assistance.”

HHFKA shows promise, and there are bipartisan ways to improve it. Bottom line: encouraging healthy meals in our schools seems to be of great importance for the health of our future generations. We will keep a close eye on the SNA and other Big Food interests this fall as they appear to be resolved to gut HHFKA.

Image via Flickr


Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson


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