President Ronald Reagan proposed in 1981 to reclassify ketchup as a vegetable in the national school lunch program.
It took awhile, but that attack, taking aim at the “undeserving poor”, was beaten back by Democrats and public opinion. Modest advancements to student nutrition have been made since then, but the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 is the first qualitative improvement in student nutrition in decades.
Now House Republicans are trying to undo the new law, reprising their efforts of several years ago when the same crowd tried to classify pizza sauce as a vegetable.
This recurring theme of cutting or dumbing down social programs for the defenseless will always have roots in bigotry and fear of government tyranny.
But this issue is more complicated.
First Lady Michelle Obama has been a champion of the new law and has made children's nutrition a cornerstone of her policy agenda. Her advocacy helped inspire the revamp of the dietary standards, which increases fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and reduces saturated fat, sodium and calories in student diets.
But the national School Nutrition Association, an industry trade group that initially supported healthier food, has done an about face and is recruiting Republicans to pull back on the new standards before they have even been fully rolled out.
Why would they do this?
To hear the SNA tell it, the new standards have made it hard for some school districts to make money from the program, as they assert kids are buying fewer lunches. Further, they say students are throwing away some of the meals they are buying so they are going hungry. The business group asserts that students need to acclimate to the new policy by delaying full implementation.
Surveys—and common sense--dispute these claims as false or overstated.
More likely, the trade group is under pressure from the companies that feather their nest. It is major food interests such as Coca Cola, Pepsico Foods, Domino’s Pizza, Pizza Hut, Con Agra, Kraft Foods and other major firms that enjoy huge profit centers in schools where kids consume their fatty pizzas and high salt snacks.
The alliance of conservative Congressmen with Big Fat Food is causing a ruckus just as the new standards are being rolled out. But it makes no sense to pull them back before they have even been tested. Further, school districts have been surveyed by the USDA and report a better than 90% compliance rate with the new standards. Fully 19 former Presidents of the organization have written letters asking that they be upheld. The list of national non-profits that support the new standards is even more impressive than the membership roster of the SNA.
That’s hardly a mandate within the industry to gut the standards.
What all this boils down to is a broader conflict in Congress that is staler than last week’s leftovers—science-based research at odds with a narrow agenda being force-fed to the public by moneyed interests. This issue is not about cutting the fat out of regulations, it’s about putting it back into the student diets to fatten the wallets of the Association's members.
This power play is being played out in the hearing rooms of Congress, on the campaign trail and in the kitchens of public schools. One side uses fact-based research to make our kids healthier; and the other bait and switch tactics aimed at stalling the policy to allow SNA members to plump their bottom lines.
Keeping the new standards should be just a start. An issue as critical as the health of our children needs more than just overdue nutritional standards. We should build on them by teaching kids where food comes from, training them on how to cook and encouraging our communities to expand urban farm programs to get more healthful food on the tables of all residents.
In time, these policies will yield a new crop of students and citizens who are healthier, happier and less reliant on downstream services that in the end cost all of us more.