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Will Vilsack Bring Change We Can Believe In to School Lunches?

By Kathryn Strong, M.S., R.D.
This opinion piece was published on Jan. 4, 2009, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Is he ready for the challenge? As President-elect Barack Obama’s pick for Secretary of Agriculture, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack will take the lead on such critical tasks as helping American farmers compete in a global economy. But as a dietitian, I think Secretary Vilsack’s toughest job will be one most pundits haven’t even mentioned: improving the food served in the nation’s school lunchrooms.

As head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Secretary Vilsack will play a key role in shaping federal school nutrition programs. And he won’t have to wait long for a major opportunity for reform: In early 2009, the Child Nutrition Act, which regulates the National School Lunch Program and the National School Breakfast Program, comes up for Congressional review.

The need for change has never been so clear. Every day, millions of American children push their trays through lunch lines offering foods packed with calories, fat, and cholesterol. As students fill up on pepperoni pizza, hamburgers, and chicken nuggets, they have little appetite for fruits, vegetables, and other healthful foods.

As children dine on these artery-clogging, high-cholesterol foods, the state of their health is looking increasingly grim. Childhood obesity has reached record levels—16 percent of children ages 2 to 19 are now obese. As waistlines expand, so does the risk for chronic disease, including diabetes and even heart disease later in life.  

The artery walls of overweight and obese children are looking more like those of an average 45-year-old, according to a study presented at the American Heart Association’s October 2008 convention. Roughly half of children between the ages of 8 and 15 already have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or other risk factors for heart disease.

Now that Vilsack has been named, there’s no time to waste. The Obama administration, especially Secretary Vilsack, should take the lead in overhauling school lunches to include more vegetables, fruits, and other vegetarian foods.

The Child Nutrition Act, which plays a critical role in determining what foods are served in the National School Lunch Program, has posed a longstanding obstacle to providing students with more healthful fare. The fundamental problem with the CNA is that it’s designed to benefit American agribusiness—not our kids’ school lunches. 

Every year, spurred on by legislative mandates, the USDA buys up millions of pounds of surplus beef, pork, and other high-fat meat products to distribute to schools. In lunch lines across America, students end up with these unhealthy options, even as schools struggle to provide fruits, vegetables, and low-fat plant-based meals.

That explains why the government's own School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study has found that an astonishing 80 percent of schools do not comply with federal guidelines, because they serve too much fatty food in the lunch line.

When the CNA comes up for reauthorization, Congress must take this opportunity to reform the school meal programs. And the incoming Obama administration must wade into this issue with the same forcefulness that Obama has displayed on economic matters. As the economy worsens, it’s more important than ever for the federal government to help cash-strapped schools serve healthful foods. 

The reform we need is simple. We must ask schools to stop serving so much saturated fat and cholesterol and start offering students more fruits, vegetables, and other healthful foods. And we should reward schools that comply by increasing federal reimbursement rates.

Vilsack has mentioned that we have a responsibility to instill good eating habits in children at a young age. If he takes the lead on reforming the CNA, our skewed school lunch priorities could be set straight. 

If Congress, President-elect Obama, and Secretary Vilsack are serious about confronting the childhood obesity epidemic, they should tackle the Child Nutrition Act with a resounding ‘Yes we can.’ Placing a new emphasis on vegetables and fruits in the lunchroom is one of the best things we could do to curb childhood obesity.  

Kathryn Strong, M.S., R.D., is a staff nutritionist with the nonprofit group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Kathryn Strong, M.S., R.D.
Kathryn Strong, M.S., R.D.

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