Spurred by concern over childhood obesity, for the first time in 15 years the federal government has proposed changes to the school-lunch program that would make cafeteria food less gruel-like. As evidenced by their notorious love of kissing babies, politicians are extremely concerned about the well-being of American children — that is, until giving them healthy food starts threatening their constituents' wallets.
According to the New York Times, the Agriculture Department has proposed new guidelines that would cut down on sodium and potatoes in school lunches and add more fresh fruits and vegetables. It's become de rigueur for the food industry to protest government efforts to make food healthier, and this time it's already invested $5.6 in lobbying against the new rules. Food manufacturers grudgingly admit that eating less sodium and more fruits and vegetables is a good thing, but they say the government is moving too quickly and its proposals are too extreme. Everyone knows you can't just give kids better lunches, you have to ease them into it. We're not talking about Folgers Crystals here, and swapping a kid's tater tots for some broccoli could send them into a state of shock.
Lawmakers are also standing up against this un-American effort to work a vegetable other than the potato into kids' diets. A group of farm-state senators has already prevented the Agriculture Department from limiting the amount of starchy foods in school lunches (and the House essentially told the Department to come up with new recommendations). Studies have found that the starchy carbs can lead to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, says, "While potatoes do have important nutrients, the nutrients can be found in other foods." Yet, the National Potato Council balked at the suggestion that kids should be fed a wider variety of vegetables. They argue that potatos should still be a large part of the school lunch because kids will eat them, which isn't very sound logic. As a kid I was most interested in obtaining nutrients from eating large quantities of Dunk-a-roos, but night after night they failed to show up on my dinner plate.
Nutritionists say that the changes are long overdue, and argue that schools are supposed to be teaching kids healthy habits. They believe that if healthier foods were prepared in an appetizing way, rather than just presenting kids with lukewarm canned vegetables, children would learn to enjoy new foods. However, it seems that some people are unable to think outside the box when it comes to school cafeteria food. The American Frozen Food Institute is concerned that the restrictions on sodium go too far and they don't count tomato paste as a vegetable unless the serving exceeds a quarter of a cup. Corey Henry, a spokesman for the institute, says this is ridiculous because, "You would basically render a pizza inedible if you had to put that much sauce on it to meet the new standards, and pizza is a big part of school lunches." This is just a wild guess, but maybe the Agriculture Department's point isn't that pizza needs more sauce, it's that you shouldn't be showing kids that pizza is the cornerstone of a healthy diet.
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