School Lunch Showdown

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School lunch menus have been the subject of controversy for decades, as we’ve noted before here at Diabetes Flashpoints. The most recent law passed by Congress that deals with school lunches is the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Under this law, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is empowered to set nutritional standards for all food sold in schools during regular hours, including breakfast, lunch, à la carte items, and snacks. For example, USDA requires that all foods sold be either “a fruit, a vegetable, a dairy product, a protein food, a ‘whole-grain rich’ grain product, or a combination food that contains at least 1/4 cup of fruit or vegetable.” USDA also imposes a variety of nutrient requirements, including limits on fat, sodium, sugar, and total calories in foods based on whether they’re a snack or entrée item. As USDA explains in its materials, it developed these rules with the goal of improving students’ nutrition and reducing the rate of obesity and related diseases like Type 2 diabetes.

Now, that law is back in the spotlight as the Republican-controlled US House of Representatives prepares to pass a USDA funding bill that would let school districts opt out of its nutrition requirements for one year. First Lady Michelle Obama, a leading proponent of the original law, has come out forcefully against making the standards optional, writing an op-ed in The New York Times in which she makes the case that the standards are working. But as noted in an ABC News article published on Sunday, many school cafeteria workers and the food industry disagree. According to the School Nutrition Association, an industry-backed group that originally supported the 2010 law, many school districts are losing money because not enough kids are buying the healthier lunches. According to the group, more than a million fewer students are now buying school lunches each day compared with 2012, when the new standards began to go into effect. Before 2012, participation in the school lunch program was rising.

Many critics of the effort to suspend nutrition requirements claim that the move is backed mainly by food companies worried about profits. Furthermore, as the First Lady notes, 90% of school districts have successfully implemented USDA’s standards, providing tens of millions of children with better nutrition. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack opposes suspending the nutrition standards, as does President Obama, who has threatened to veto any funding bill that scales them back. The version of the USDA spending bill currently before the Democratic-controlled US Senate leaves all school nutrition standards in place.

What do you think — should school districts be allowed to relax their nutrition standards if sales of lunches or snack items are slipping? Are all standards pointless, since kids can bring anything they want to eat from home? Does a student’s right to nutritious meals outweigh concerns about fewer students buying them? Do you think school nutrition standards will have any effect on the rate of youth obesity or Type 2 diabetes? Leave a comment below!

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