CATHERINE RAMPELL

School-lunch switch is hard to stomach

School nutritionists come out against vegetables. Hmmm … I wonder why?

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No taste for whole-grain bread? Let them eat cake.

Also pizza, french fries, doughnuts, chicken nuggets and whatever else American children’s prematurely cholesterol-clogged hearts desire.

I’m referring, of course, to the battle over school meals. In 2010, alarmed by the growing girth of children around the country, Congress directed the Agriculture Department to make school meals healthier. The USDA soon issued expert-recommended standards that require, for example, more vegetables and whole grains and less sodium and fat.

These changes toward less-processed foods impose costs, as you might imagine. But the new standards came with additional federal funds. They were also implemented with strong support from the School Nutrition Association, a lobbying group that represents school food professionals.

Now, four years later, the association has changed its tune and is lobbying Congress to gut the new nutritional requirements by letting districts effectively opt out of them altogether. Judging from a House Appropriations Committee vote last week, Republicans look eager to push through the lobby’s demands.

Rest assured, the School Nutrition Association says this alimentary about-face has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that half its revenue now comes from industry sources, as its spokeswoman recently told The Washington Post.

Or that the biggest sponsors of the organization’s most recent annual convention included PepsiCo, Domino’s Pizza, Sara Lee and Schwan Food, which reportedly sells pizzas to more than three-quarters of America’s 96,000 K-12 schools. (Pizza, remember, counts as a vegetable serving for school-meal purposes, thanks to the last time Congress decided to improve school nutritional standards.)

Or that corporate members comprise a third of participants in the association’s annual legislative conference.

No, no, no. This is not about special interests. It’s about the children and their sophisticated, freedom-loving, nanny-state-detesting palates.

Children, it seems, are unhappy about the healthier foods, leaving carrots unconsumed, applesauce uneaten, whole-grain tortillas untouched. Or at least they are in some schools; more than 90 percent of schools “report that they are successfully meeting the updated nutrition standards,” the USDA says, and the School Nutrition Association could not provide me with a comprehensive list of exactly which or even how many districts want to roll back the standards.

The lobby group has, however, trotted out a few of its members to argue that schools are better off buying the cheaper foods that students prefer (and that the association’s most munificent sponsors just happen to manufacture).

“We can’t force students to eat something they don’t want,” said Lyman Graham, food service director for school districts in and near Roswell, New Mexico, in a statement released by the School Nutrition Association.

Likewise: “The older students, especially, know what they want, and some days they simply don’t want a fruit or vegetable with their meals,” said Dolores Sutterfield, child nutrition director of the school district in Harrisburg, Arkansas, in the same news release. “At about 25 cents a serving, the mandate to serve a fruit or vegetable has us throwing away money and making kids angry with us.”

And finally: “The problem is that not all students’ taste buds are quite ready or receptive to the new meal standards,” said Lynn Harvey, the chief of child nutrition services for North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction, in a conference call last week.

Children, as everyone knows, are the best stewards of their own diets. Especially children in the school districts that have been vocal about wanting exemptions from the new nutritional requirements. Just take a look at the childhood obesity rates in the areas where the three officials I quoted above work: Across North Carolina, 1 in 6 children ages 10 to 17 is obese, according to the National Survey of Children’s Health. In one of the New Mexico counties whose schools Ms. Graham oversees, more than 20 percent of adolescents are obese, according to the state’s health department. At campuses in Arkansas’ Harrisburg school district, obesity rates range from 26 percent to 36 percent, according to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement.

So yes, by all means, let these kids’ delicate taste buds dictate what schools serve them and what taxpayers should subsidize — because, after all, education is all about indulging children’s whims and cravings. Give the children what they want: cheap, processed food. And while we’re at it, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard that kids don’t like homework, either.

Ending the nanny state can sound pretty enticing. Especially when you’re 12.

Catherine Rampell is a columnist for The Washington Post and writes the paper’s Rampage blog.



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