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_Back in February, I wrote about the January release of the USDA's 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).  Included in the DGA were suggestions that should have positively affected the school lunch program in our nation's schools.

One new DGA requirement would have limited the amount of starchy vegetables (as opposed to their generally more nutritious fibrous brethren) served to one cup per week per student.  Another section proposed gradually lowering the salt in school lunches over 10 years from the current level of about 1,600mg per meal to 640-740mg per meal, with the ending level dependant upon the age range of the students consuming the food.  The DGA also mandated that half of all grains served in school lunches be whole grain.

Finally, the guidelines aimed to end the special treatment of tomato paste.  An eighth of a cup of tomato paste is counted as a full serving of vegetables (yeah, I know), as opposed to other fruit and vegetable purees and pastes that require a quarter cup to count as a full serving.  Tomato paste is put on this pedestal not because of any compelling dietary distinction but because of its prominent role in that school lunch classic: pizza.  In essence, pizza is currently counted as a serving of vegetables.  A bit ridiculous, no?

Fast forward to last month, when fiscal appropriations bill HR2112 was brought before Congress, dragging along with it a number of "riders" effectively negating the changes to be made to school lunches due to the 2010 DGA.

First, the bill disallows the limitation on starchy vegetables, even if they are to be replaced with healthier, fibrous options.  Not surprisingly, there was clear influence by commercial interests on this issue.  Regarding HR2112, Kraig R. Naasz, president and CEO of the American Frozen Food Institute said, "Of particular interest to frozen food producers, this agreement ensures that nutrient-rich vegetables such as potatoes, corn and peas will remain part of a balanced, healthy diet in federally funded school meals.”  Nice job, Mr. Naasz.  Clearly looking out for the best interests of our children and the country.  Potatoes, corn, and peas are far from the most nutrient-rich vegetable options out there, unless of course by "nutrient-rich" you just mean "relatively high carbohydrate content."

In addition, HR2112 severely limits the sodium reduction plan.  Again, it appears (to me) as though industry has lined politicians' pockets to get what they want.  Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute, said, "We should not subject our school-children or any of our citizens to what amounts to a giant lab experiment.  [. . .] There are negative health consequences of a low-salt diet.”  Yes, Ms. Roman.  Surely the USDA reviewed zero literature before posting its guidelines.  Coming from the...Salt Institute, I'm sure your opinion on salt reduction in the National School Lunch Program is entirely unbiased.

Unfortunately, HR2112 was signed into law by the president near the end of Novermber.  In response to HR2112's passage, Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, "Together, the school lunch riders in the agriculture spending bill would protect industry’s ability to keep pizza and french fries on school lunch trays every day of the week to the detriment of children’s health.  [. . .] Pizza should be served with a vegetable, not count as one."  Though I usually lampoon the CSPI for their often outlandish opinions, I'm happy to see that they've returned to planet Earth and ventured out of their UFOs for this battle.

The CSPI isn't the only one to voice disapproval.  To their credit, the USDA is standing their ground.  Following the signing of HR2112 into law, the USDA said, "While it's unfortunate that some members of Congress continue to put special interests ahead of the health of America's children, the USDA remains committed to practical, science-based standards for school meals."

The detrimental effects of this bill on the nutritional well-being of school kids, along with the obvious (and increasingly common) encroachment of commercial influence on the political process, makes the story of HR2112 especially disturbing.  School nutrition should be domain of science, not industry.  I applaud the USDA for making some progress with this year's DGA, but I'm disgusted by the lawmakers responsible for the passage of "roadblock" HR2112.

Maybe next year we'll start standing up for the future of our country.

 


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    Rob Bent is the founder and lead nutrition counselor at Nutrition Perfected.  He is a multi-sport athlete and works constantly to maximize sports performance through scientifically-guided nutritional optimization.

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