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Government Should Stop Providing Hot Dogs to Schools

By Krista L. Haynes, R.D.

This op-ed ran in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Oct. 23, 2008.

What if the federal government purchased surplus cigarettes and delivered them to America’s elementary school students to smoke on the playground?

Sounds absurd, right? But the U.S. Department of Agriculture is doing something almost as irresponsible by providing processed meats, which have been shown to increase cancer risk, to schools through the National School Lunch Program and the National School Breakfast Program. Atlanta’s public schools, for example, serve a huge amount of processed meat.

Last year, in the most comprehensive report ever published on the evidence linking cancer risk to diet, the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund concluded that processed meat is a convincing cause of colorectal cancer and should be avoided completely.

Maybe the government missed the news that processed meats cause cancer, but now it’s getting the facts—a petition has been filed with the USDA just in time for National School Lunch Week, which began October 13.

As a dietitian for the Cancer Project, a national nonprofit cancer education organization, I helped file this petition for rulemaking and enforcement asking the USDA to stop distributing surplus processed meats to children through the school lunch and breakfast programs because these products have been linked to an increased risk of cancer in adulthood.

When determining the nutritional quality of a school meal, the USDA considers calories, fat, cholesterol, and other factors. But there is another key componentthe food itself. The actual food, how it’s cooked, and whether it exposes kids to riskscancer, foodborne illnesses, or other ailmentsmust be considered to ensure a wholesome meal.

No amount of processed meat should be served to kidsAICR researchers carefully examined all evidence and could not find an amount of processed meat safe for consumption. According to the report, every 50 grams of processed meat consumed daily increases the risk of developing colon cancer, on average, by 21 percent.

If a kid eats sausage links and a hot dog at school for breakfast and lunch and a pepperoni pizza at home for dinner, he or she is developing a habit that will increase dramatically the risk of getting colon cancer later in life.

And this scenario is not unlikelyAmerica’s schools aren’t just serving an occasional salami sandwich or mystery meat medley. A survey conducted this year by the Cancer Project found that some school cafeterias serve processed meats at the majority of meals. In Atlanta’s secondary schools, processed meats are served for breakfast three out of five days. The schools must take some responsibility for this, of course. But when the government supplies huge quantities of processed meats and other unhealthful foods free or at low prices to cash-strapped schools across the country, it’s an offer many hard-pressed food service directors can’t refuse.

Congress has given the USDA authority to protect the health of the nation’s children and to support the nation’s agricultural sector. Unfortunately, these two goals often conflict. The USDA purchases surplus agricultural commodities, which is beneficial for American agribusiness. But by distributing unhealthful surplus foods like processed meats to schools and exposing children to an increased risk of cancer later in life, the USDA is failing to protect the nation’s children.

Our processed meat petition is welcome news to medical professionals battling our nation’s epidemics of cancer, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. The petition calls upon the USDA to stop offering processed meats for purchase, subsidy, and reimbursement under the school lunch and breakfast programs. We also want the USDA to encourage schools that continue to offer processed meats to include alternatives to these products on their menus.

The USDA can no longer act like an innocent bystander. The link between processed meats and increased cancer risk is now clear. The USDA should take immediate action to respond to this petition and get hot dogs out of school lunch lines. The government must fulfill its responsibility to our nation’s children by encouraging good eating habitsinstead of feeding kids the meat industry’s leftovers.

Krista L. Haynes, R.D. is a staff dietitian with the Cancer Project.


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