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Healthy Choices for Schoolchildren
There is no time like childhood to instill good eating habits that can help stave off America’s most deadly adult killers–heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and stroke. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food and Nutrition Services (FNS), whose programs subsidize school meal plans and provide assistance to low-income families, finds itself at odds with its own mandate to provide healthy meals.
The FNS was instituted in 1969 to provide “children and low-income people access to food, a healthful diet, and nutrition education in a manner that supports American agriculture and inspires public confidence.” Therein lies the problem. The most heavily subsidized foods in the United States–beef, pork, cheese, chicken, milk, eggs, and other animal products–are the very ones we should limit because of the heavy load of saturated fat and cholesterol they add to the diet and the important nutrients they lack. Dairy products in particular create a unique health risk. The milk sugar lactose, found in milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and other dairy products, causes painful gastrointestinal side effects for lactose-intolerant people, a group that includes most African, Asian, and Latino Americans. Despite this fact, mothers enrolled in the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) are strongly encouraged to use their food allowances for dairy products as well as high-fat animal products. This includes tuna fish, which is known to contain dangerously high levels of mercury, posing health risks for pregnant women and kids. PCRM and others are working to change this.
Early in 2002, FNS held outreach sessions on its Child Nutrition Acts (School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, and WIC) in order to develop recommendations to send to Congress. PCRM staff dietitian Jennifer Keller, R.D., urged Secretary Ann Veneman and Secretary Eric M. Bost to consider how circumstances have changed since national school feeding programs began. Where once the government was concerned with malnutrition, “today we Americans should be concerned with over-consumption,” Ms. Keller commented. “The foods given to children today under the guise of good nutrition–chili cheese dogs, pizza, cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, cow’s milk–are part of the problem that has created a generation of obese and overweight children.”
A national survey revealed that most children are not meeting modest dietary goals. Ms. Keller explained to the panel how building meals from low-fat plant foods easily satisfies calcium and protein requirements, providing all essential amino acids, while animal products tend to edge the most nutrient-rich foods off the plate. Consequently, vegetarians have healthier hearts, lower blood pressure, less risk of diabetes, kidney stones, and gallstones, and 40 percent less cancer incidence than non-vegetarians. In fact, a recent study from the University of Minnesota found that teen-aged vegetarians were more likely to meet the USDA’s Healthy People 2010 objectives, a national goal of reducing fat and increasing vegetable and fruit consumption in the American diet. The study was published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.
PCRM submitted the following recommendations to the FNS:
- Meals served under the National School Lunch Program should include only healthy, nutrient-dense foods, so that children can only choose nutritious meals.
- National School Lunch Program regulations should require that hot vegetarian meals be served daily.
- The USDA should develop menus and training to encourage schools to serve more fresh fruits, vegetables (especially calcium-rich vegetables such as dark leafy greens), and beans, and less meat, poultry, pizza, and fried foods.
- Calcium-rich, nondairy beverages, such as calcium-fortified juice, soymilk, or rice milk, should be offered daily as a milk alternative, regardless of whether a student shows a particular medical or dietary need.