In catching up on reading, I came across two opposing school food opinion pieces recently published in The Hill. One is by Dr. Michael Rosenbaum, a Columbia University professor of pediatrics, who supports keeping school food as healthful as possible. The other is by the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) chief executive, Patricia Montague, whose organization supports “flexibility” on the sodium and whole grain nutrition standards.
Given my own advocacy for healthy school meals, you’d think I’d be cheering the former piece and criticizing the latter. But instead I found myself inching away uncomfortably from Rosenbaum’s arguments.
Do you remember how last month the right wing media grossly overstated the Trump administration’s “relaxing” of some school food rules? If you didn’t know better, you’d think Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had just overturned the entire Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) in a humiliating defeat for that meddling Food Nanny, Michelle Obama. Here’s one representative headline from Fox News: “Nanny State Fired From Kids’ Lunchboxes: Trump Boots Michelle Obama’s Lunch Standards – Finally.”
But if it was wrong for Fox News to stir up conservatives with misleading spin, it’s no better for a health advocate to use the same false narrative for his own (admirable) ends. Yet take a look at the first sentence in Rosenbaum’s piece:
“The Trump administration is endeavoring to transform the school lunchroom from a learning environment into a junk food emporium.”
As I explained in “Yes, School Meal Standards Just Got Weaker – But Not As Much As You Think,” Secretary Perdue’s May 1st announcement did little more than lock in the status quo on school food. Schools were already serving 1% white milk and skim chocolate milk; now they can serve a 1% chocolate variety – hardly a bombshell. Districts could already seek a waiver to serve grains foods that aren’t “whole grain-rich,” and while some advocates are upset that there won’t be further sodium reductions (at least for now), school food is still lower in salt than it was pre-HHFKA.
The rest of the HHFKA standards remain intact, including calorie limits, a ban on trans fats, a greater variety of vegetables served and an important requirement that kids take a half-cup serving of fruits or vegetables at lunch. In other words, we have not returned to the bad old days of deep-fried carnival fare in our school cafeterias.
But Rosenbaum not only uses this inaccurate and alarming lead sentence to grab readers’ attention, he doubles down by stating that this alleged return to junk food in schools is a nefarious plot by Big Food. How does he know this? Because the SNA “receives over half its funding from the food industry.” He also claims – without any support – that Perdue is in Big Food’s pocket, too, willing “to cater to the food industry lobby against any school meal regulation.”
But that theory has no clear basis in fact. As Politico‘s Helena Bottemiller Evich wrote in an investigative piece in 2015, the food industry has already invested considerable time and money in retooling its recipes to meet HHFKA standards. Not only does the industry not want to lose that investment, it’s actually found that the sale of these reformulated products to schools is highly profitable.
The push to soften whole grain and sodium standards instead came from the SNA, and it seems unlikely to me that food industry dollars influenced Perdue’s acquiescence on those issues. (The change regarding chocolate milk, however, was a direct result of dairy industry lobbying.)
Rosenbaum also hides the ball from readers when he compares the cost of funding healthier school food (an additional $1.22 billion over pre-HHFKA reimbursements, according to the USDA) to the skyrocketing costs of obesity ($200 billion dollars per year).
Yes, the former figure is eclipsed by the latter, but Rosenbaum doesn’t reveal to readers that Congress never actually came up with that extra $1.22 billion for schools. Instead, districts receive only an extra six cents at lunch to meet the HHFKA standards, not the 10 cents they actually need. Serving healthier school food without sufficient funds remains a real challenge for districts, and it was left to Montague to make this important point in her rebuttal.
I’m aware that the Trump administration may only just be getting started, and that Perdue’s May 1st announcement could be the opening salvo in a larger effort to dismantle healthier school meal standards. If that turns out to be the case, we’ll certainly need passionate and articulate advocates like Rosenbaum, with whom I otherwise completely agree.
But it doesn’t serve our side well to sow panic before it’s warranted.
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