On both this blog and The Spork Report, I’ve written extensively about “competitive foods,” i.e., the food and beverages sold on school campuses in competition with the federal school meal, through outlets like vending machines, snack bars, and cafeteria “a la carte” lines. In many school districts, including here in Houston ISD, these offerings can be pretty lousy from a nutritional standpoint. (See my very first Spork Report post describing how Houston kids can make an entire “lunch” from bright orange baked Cheetos and nacho sauce, two items currently sold by my district.) So, like many school food advocates, I’m eagerly awaiting USDA’s proposed competitive food regulations, due to be released soon, to see if they offer meaningful reforms.
But even before the regulations have been submitted for public comment, a skirmish is already underway between USDA and the nation’s cranberry growers. At issue is the amount of added sugar in cranberry juice: a whopping 12 teaspoons in a 12-ounce serving, which is a full 2 teaspoons more than contained in 12 ounces of cola. Anyone who’s ever tasted a raw cranberry knows why so much sugar is needed to make the juice palatable, but with one-third of American children overweight or obese, should this heavily sweetened beverage be sold as a competitive beverage in schools?
The cranberry growers, of course, say yes, and they offer a range of arguments in support of the juice, including its high antioxidant content and its usefulness in preventing urinary tract infections.
Only 3 percent of kids a year have urinary tract infections, compared to one-third who are overweight. Urinary tract infection is not a booming epidemic. Obesity is.
Whatever you think of the merits of cranberry juice in schools, this battle presages many more like it as food companies fight to retain their share of the lucrative competitive school food market. And if history is any guide, you might want to lay your money on Big Food over kids’ health: just as Minnesota Congresswoman Amy Klobuchar came to the aid of frozen food manufacturer Schwann, located in her state, when it objected to changes to the rule treating pizza as a school food vegetable, Massachusetts Senators John Kerry (who you’d think might have more important matters on his plate as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee) and Scott Brown have already come out fighting in favor of the cranberry growers.
Episodes like these, along with my past observation that even “improved” competitive food standards can let a whole lot of junk food into schools, don’t leave me very optimistic about meaningful reforms in this area. But I’ll try to remain hopeful, and I’ll certainly keep you posted here.
Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 3,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.