• Audrey Sanchez

Different year, same attack on children's health

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), led by Sonny Perdue, released a proposal for changes to the Federal Nutrition Services school meal guidelines. Guidelines that, at their best, promote healthy meal patterns for the 30 million children who depend on them each day. At their worst, however, those same guidelines limit the quality, healthfulness, and diversity of foods on school menus.


We've all seen them at their worst. Cue all the beige:


So on the surface, it would seem the USDA’s proposal to “increase flexibility” for school foodservice providers and “streamline the accountability process” would be news welcomed by public health advocates and foodservice professionals alike, right? Wrong.


How much more "flexibility" does this USDA-approved lunch need?

Despite its reckless attempt to use buzzwords like “flexibility” and “streamlining” to mislead the public, it’s clear the actual goal of the USDA’s proposal is to make it easier for the food industry to influence school menus. While the agency may indeed successfully confuse millions of parents who trust it to make decisions in the best interest of their children, nutrition policy experts and public health advocates have been working overtime to reveal the USDA’s real motivation for the changes they’re championing.


Of the USDA’s proposal and associated press release, Bettina Elisa Siegel author of Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World, says this “But to read the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) press release about its proposed rule—a masterwork of doublespeak—you’d never know what’s really going on.”


The Center for Science in the Public Interest released this statement following the USDA’s announcement, “[this] assault on children’s health continues today under the guise of “simplifying” school meals. The proposed rule would allow anything that might be allowable as an entrée on any one school day to be served as an a la carte item every single day. In practice, if finalized, this would create a huge loophole in school nutrition guidelines, paving the way for children to choose pizza, burgers, French fries, and other foods high in calories, saturated fat or sodium in place of balanced school meals every day.”


After exclaiming, “I just can’t get my head around why there is so much political pressure to feed junk food to kids. Doesn’t everyone want kids to be healthy? Apparently not.” Marion Nestle continues on her blog Food Politics, “In short, school meals are not broken and do not need fixing. This is about politics, in this case USDA’s pandering to food company interests at the expense of kids’ health.”


Unsurprisingly, apart from the USDA itself, the only organization to endorse the proposed changes happens to be the School Nutrition Association. Not coincidentally, the SNA receives the majority of its funding from the very food companies that stand to benefit the most from loosened regulations and accountability.


Public comment on these proposed changes opens on January 23rd, and concerned citizens are encouraged to comment. Although if history has shown us anything, public comments have-not-been and will-not-be enough. At least not right now. A healthier future depends on policymakers putting our lives - our wellbeing - above the corporate and political interests (and money) of the food industry.


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If you would like to leave a public comment on/after January 23, 2020, here is our suggested language:


It is incomprehensible that the agency responsible for ensuring the nutritional quality of the over-30-million meals served to children every day, has yet again turned its back on the health of our families. The “flexibility and streamlining” of the proposed changes to the FNS School Meal Guidelines will almost certainly result in imbalanced, unhealthy meals and open the door to increased amounts of ultraprocessed foods high in sodium, cholesterol, saturated fat, sugar, and excess calories on menus. These changes clearly put the interests of the food industry and agribusiness ahead of the health and wellbeing of our children, families, and communities and the American people deserve better.




Audrey Lawson-Sanchez is the founder and executive director of Balanced. To share your thoughts or for media requests, please email: audreys@balanced.org


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