By MARSHA MERCER
It’s back-to-school time, so naturally that means food fights.
The school cafeteria has been an unlikely political battleground since the Reagan administration tried to classify ketchup and pickle relish as vegetables more than three decades ago. The ridiculous proposal was withdrawn but not forgotten.
Today, the federal government is pushing for healthier lunches in the fight against childhood obesity. Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, championed by first lady Michelle Obama. Congress and Obama deserve praise for standing up for kids’ health.
Starting last fall, the nation’s lunch trays have been filled with leaner, less salty fare, but, as nutritionists say, “It’s not nutrition until it’s eaten.”
Some students have given the new and improved lunches an F. They’re tossing veggies into the trash, chowing down for lunch at nearby fast food restaurants and brown-bagging. As a result, some schools are dropping out of the National School Lunch Program altogether.
“So many students turned up their noses at meals packed with whole grains, fruits and vegetables that the cafeterias were losing money,” the Associated Press reported.
Well, not “so many.” The federal government says the number of students eating cafeteria lunches nationwide dropped nearly 3 percent in 2012-13 from the year before. The decline is mostly among kids who can afford to buy their own lunch. Most can’t; about 71 percent of students received free or reduced-price lunches last May.
Complaints about cafeteria “mystery meat” are as old as steam tables, so it’s hardly a surprise that whole wheat might not win fans after one year. Several news stories picked up a quote by a school board member in Harlan, Ky. You may not want to read what she had to say if you’re having your corn flakes. Fair warning.
“They say it tastes like vomit,” said Myra Mosley.
The Daily Caller suggested that the quote was a condemnation of the first lady’s efforts to make school lunches healthier. The Caller’s headline read, “Kentucky students to first lady Michelle Obama: Your food ‘tastes like vomit’”
But the students did not say that. The Harlan Daily Enterprise reported that Mosley twice said the kids were complaining about the 1 percent fat milk they now are served. A school official explained they’re using the same brand of milk, but the kids are used to the taste of 2 percent and whole milk.
The Department of Agriculture has a sensible, new “Offer versus Serve” policy. At lunch, instead of serving everybody the same five required foods – meat or meat alternative, grains, fruit, vegetable and milk – schools offer the five and allow each student to choose three and decline two. It’s hoped that will reduce waste, bring kids back to the lunch line and stop school districts from heading for the exits of the lunch program.
A School Nutrition Association survey this summer found 1 percent of school officials planned for at least one of their schools to drop out of the national lunch program in 2013-14. About 3 percent are considering removing a school, said the association, which concluded, “there is no national trend” of schools abandoning the national lunch program.
You might think the problem with school lunches is too much of a good, or healthy, thing. Not so, say Republican Reps. Steve King of Iowa and Tim Huelskamp of Kansas. They say the “nutrition nannies” have unfairly put the all nation’s students on a diet.
Elementary pupils’ lunches now may contain 650 calories, middle school 700 calories and high school 850 calories. Some high school football players complain their lunches weren’t filling enough to keep hunger pangs at bay during hours of after-school practice.
King and Huelskamp’s “No Hungry Kids Act” would roll back the new rules and prohibit calorie caps.
Instead of giving up on the new lunch guidelines, smart schools are experimenting with salad bars and attractive fruit baskets. School lunches in Madison, Ala., now include roasted Alabama sweet potato wedges and locally grown cherry tomatoes and watermelon.
More nutrition battles surely lie ahead, though. In 2014, the federal government will require schools to stock healthy foods in school vending machines, snack bars and stores.
I can’t wait to see where the politicians line up in the face-off between gummy bears and granola bars.
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.