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The President’s Other Battleground: The School Lunch Line

By Neal D. Barnard, M.D.

This commentary was published in a slightly edited form in the Sacramento Bee on Sept. 27, 2002.

President Bush announced new attack plans against what is perhaps the fiercest enemy this nation has ever encountered, while others within his own administration are fighting him tooth and nail, undercutting his resolve, and putting America at risk.

No, we’re not talking about Iraq. We’re talking about mystery meat. At a White House ceremony on September 18, the President revealed plans to pump $629 million into the War on Cancer, noting the “growing body of evidence that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables reduces the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases,” and quipped that he might even start eating broccoli.

But just a week before the President’s new declaration of resolve on cancer, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced the USDA’s plans to buy up to $30 million of excess pork products and to feed them to children in schools and recipients of other federal programs. Now, no one, not even Ann Veneman, really believes America’s ever-more-out-of-shape children need another pork chop. But pork prices have been dipping lately, and hog farmers have grown restless. And when agribusiness profits fall, the government bails them out faster than you can say atherosclerosis. During the last academic year, the USDA bought up 192 million pounds of pork and other meat products, along with 229 million pounds of poultry and eggs, all to boost farmers’ incomes. And it shows up on lunch trays in schools, government hospitals, and prisons.

That’s not the way to win the War on Cancer. It was fully a decade ago that U.S. government-funded researchers showed that meat-eaters have three times the colon cancer risk, compared to people who rarely eat meat. And a good five years ago, the World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research released a ground-breaking report saying, like it or not, meat is a probable contributor to cancer risk. Government scientists have even identified the likely smoking guns that link the culprit to the crime, from the carcinogens that form while meat is cooked to its ability to disrupt hormone function. But in medicine, as in the military, intelligence does not equal action. Even while the government’s cancer researchers prove that our diet is killing us, the Department of Agriculture still makes meat the centerpiece of every meal it serves school children.

One in three children graduating from high school this year will eventually develop cancer at some point in their adult lives, and the vast majority of cases are attributable to just two factors: tobacco and diet. But since it was declared by President Nixon in 1971, this agonizing war of attrition has been fought one case at a time. Yes, we have ever more powerful weapons of tumor-mass destruction—radiation and chemotherapy—but we are neglecting the fundamental key that could change the health of an entire generation, and that is education. No child should finish high school without at least a basic understanding of what cancer is and what causes it. Children—and their parents—need to understand that large, government-funded studies have linked meat to colon cancer, just as they have linked tobacco to lung cancer. They should be aware that vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans have important protective effects. And school lunch programs should reinforce their tastes for these healthy foods, not just push Salisbury steak, chicken nuggets, and cheese pizza.

Some kids may turn away from healthy foods, like vegetable stir-fries, spaghetti marinara, veggie chili, bean burritos, and fresh fruit and stick with unhealthy fare. But until the government decides whose side it’s on and gives families a fighting chance against the biggest threats to their health, we remain our own worst enemy.

Neal D. Barnard, M.D., is president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


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