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Protecting Students’ Health from Pork-Barrel Politics

By Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.
This opinion piece was published on Sept. 30, 2009, in The Des Moines Register.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has America’s students over a barrel—a pork barrel. Earlier this month, Vilsack announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is purchasing $30 million in pork products and dumping them into the National School Lunch Program and other government food programs.

As a dietitian, I’m finding Vilsack’s pork industry bailout a little hard to swallow. The government should be improving the food served to children—not loading school meals down with more saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium.

Times are tough, and pork producers are struggling with falling demand for their products as consumers seek healthier, more affordable options.

Vilsack has responded by offering massive government support that has gone well beyond the latest $30 million payout. In fiscal year 2009, the USDA will pay a total of $151 million to pork producers—more than double what the USDA spent on pork purchases in 2008, according to the National Pork Producers Council.

In the last four months alone, the USDA’s cumulative pork purchases include $5 million for 4 million pounds of leg roasts, $5 million for 6 million pounds of boneless shoulder, and $28 million for 15 million pounds of ham.

The National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program—which provide food to more than 100,000 schools across the nation—are just two of the USDA’s nutrition assistance programs receiving millions of pounds of these artery-clogging pork products.

Does anyone truly believe that America's students need more bacon, sausage, and pepperoni pizza in their school breakfasts and lunches? School meals are already far from healthy. The federal government’s own School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study has found that 80 percent of schools serve too much high-fat food to comply with federal guidelines.

Vilsack says the purchase will help pork farmers “mitigate further downward prices.” I know it will result in millions of U.S. students receiving meals that are nutritionally bankrupt.

Our kids are struggling with the results of unhealthy diets. The percentage of overweight and obese children is now at or above 30 percent in 30 states, according to a new report from the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. And according to current estimates, one in three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in life.

Better school lunch options could do a world of good. Take a veggie sausage patty, for example. It provides double the amount of protein as a typical pork sausage patty—10 grams. And while a pork patty harbors about 11 grams of fat, a veggie patty has only 3, and it has almost no saturated fat, no cholesterol, and fewer calories.

The Child Nutrition Act, which helps determine what foods are served in schools, is up for reauthorization soon. Congress will be putting some hard thought into how to improve school meals.

But lawmakers don’t need to look hard to find one obvious change to make: We’ve got to stop using school lunches as a dumping ground for high-fat meat products. It’s time to mandate that the USDA put children’s health above agribusiness profits.

Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., is director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Susan Levin, M.S., R.D
Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.

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