The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Time to Save School Lunch from Government Standards

September 12th, 2010 · 7 Comments · Posted in kids, school food

Sugar: the go-to ingredient for school meals

Sugar: the go-to ingredient for school meals

The biggest news about the Child Nutrition Act pending in Congress isn’t increased funding or more vegetables and whole grains in school meals. The reason we need this bill passed now is to save children from government standards that are destroying kids’ health.

Every day I visit the cafeteria in my daughter’s elementary school here in the District of Columbia and watch a quiet struggle unfold. It’s the same battle schools fight all over the country: trying to provide kids the calories the U.S. Department of Agriculture says they must have on a budget that won’t cover the cost of healthy food. The result: meals loaded with sugar, enemy No. 1 in our current epidemic of childhood obesity.

Sugar, and especially the high-fructose corn syrup that proliferates in cheap processed food, has emerged as the leading culprit behind a host of modern ills. It packs fat onto waistlines, raises blood pressure, creates bad cholestorol and unhealthy arteries, primes bodies for diabetes and heart failure, and now is suspected in an outbreak of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in children.

Right behind smoking, sugar has become the health scourge of our time, contributing greatly to this country’s estimated $147 billion annual tab for weight-related illnesses. Yet in the world of federally-subsidized school meals, sugar not only goes virtually unregulated, but has emerged as the go-to ingredient to boost calories in perpetually under-funded cafeterias.

Take breakfast, for instance. The USDA says that a school breakfast must provide 554 calories for children in elementary school. Where do those calories come from? Well, if you have less than $1 to spend, your breakfast might very well look like the ones that used to be served every day in D.C.: Sugary Apple Jacks cereal topped with strawberry-flavored milk, accompanied by a Pop-Tart, a pack of Giant Goldfish Grahams and a carton of orange juice. Altogether, children as young as five routinely were consuming the equivalent of 15 teaspoons of sugar before classes even started.

This year, D.C. school officials have taken the extraordinary step of eliminating not just flavored milk and sugary cereals, but also those other processed “treats” that were standard fare in the breakfast line. Now we see low-sugar Kashi cereal and organic yogurt and sunflower butter and cottage cheese on the menu. But how do you make a small blueberry muffin, a scoop of cottage cheese, a carton of low-fat milk and four ounces of orange juice add up to 554 calories?

We’re lucky here in the nation’s capitol. As the result of a “Healthy Schools Act” passed by the D.C. Council earlier this year, we now have 10 cents extra to spend on breakfast and another 10 cents for lunch. Few local jurisdictions have been so generous. That’s why you see cookies and brownies in subsidized school lunches all over the country. The sugar provides a cheap boost in calories. In the Chicago area, parents continue to complain about “brunch for lunch,” meaning pancakes, phony syrup and cookies posing as the midday meal. Other healthy food advocates despair of getting sugary flavored milk off the menu: Their schools would then fall short of the USDA’s calorie requirements.

The measly six additional cents the U.S. Senate recently approved for school meals as part of its version of the Child Nutrition Act re-authorization won’t solve the problem. But its call for new meal standards might. Under the Senate bill, the USDA would be required to “update meal patterns and nutrition standards” within the next three years. Proposed new standards have already been developed by the Institute of Medicine at the USDA’s behest.

Don’t look for any regulations aimed specifically at sugar. The sugar lobby is too strong for that. Instead, the IOM attempts an end run around sugar’s tyranny over school meals, lowering calorie requirements while boosting the amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains schools must serve. Sugar essentially would be squeezed off the menu.

In fact, the current calorie minimums enforced by the USDA exceed the IOM’s proposed maximums. The calorie requirement for an elementary school breakfast, for instance, would change from that flat 554 calories to a range of 350 minimum calories and a maximum of 500. That means 204 calories cash-strapped school wouldn’t have to pay for, calories kids might not be exposed to in the form of sugar.

For lunch, the IOM recommends a range of 550 to 650 calories for kids five to 10 years of age, compared to the USDA’s current fixed amount of 664. The Institute of Medicine also proposes to raise the percentage of calories that can derive from calorie-dense fat in school meals from 30 percent to 35 percent, a move that would further reduce schools’ reliance on sugar and bring the meals program more in line with the federal government’s dietary guidelines.

In addition, this year’s version of the Child Nutrition Act for the first time would give the USDA authority to regulate all foods sold in school, not just in the subsidized meal line. If the agriculture secretary is in a mood to take on the processed food industry, that could mean no more sugary drinks and snacks in vending machines, no more ice cream bars or fruit roll-ups in a la carte lines.

For healthy school food advocates, the Senate’s trifling six cents is hard to swallow. But we need to get over it for now and make sure the House moves quickly on its version of the Child Nutrition Act. As we’ve seen here in D.C., a lot can be accomplished just by ridding school meals of unhealthy foods, especially sugar. That’s reason enough to make passage of this bill now an urgent priority.

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  • The Table of Promise

    This is a well done post. I did not know that schools were held to a particular number of calories. That seems so counterintuitive.

    Perhaps the day might come when we are less afraid of healthy fats in this country. This could provide the calories needed without the sugar. And it would help with everything from brain function to constipation. But that is a bigger fight, since most parents would be against that due to an inadequate understanding of the role that healthy fats play in body function. Not to mention our culture’s difficulty in understanding balance. Just because fat can be good, it doesn’t mean that lots of fat is good. We have a ways to go.

    Thanks for this well done post.

  • Chef Asata

    Great article. Thanks!

  • Robyn

    Time for the Mommy Lobby

  • A mom who cares

    It would be wonderful if we could get some sort of form letter set up to contact our representatives regarding our wishes as parents regarding this.
    I know it’s an uphill battle to fight the sugar lobby,
    but we could at least try!


    As is often the case, Ed has focused on the underlying issues about sugar in our school lunches and breakfasts. The kind of sugar is the key here. Fructose is the molecule that promotes obesity because when in corn syrup it is free and unbound, meaning it is ready for absorbtion and utilization from the get-go. It is metabolized to produce fat. Hence, obesity. Thanks Ed for your steady delivery of concern for our children.

  • Viki

    Fantastic post! I didn’t realize that school breakfast had a certain calorie requirement.
    I totally agree with The Table of Promise, good fats would help both brain and body!

  • Dana Woldow

    Oh oh – now you’ve gone and done it! You’ve insulted high fructose corn syrup! You can expect a sharp retort from Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, who will take you to task for your failure to understand that HFCS is “just the same” as table sugar.

    In fact, Ms Erickson may take the trouble to hunt down your home address and have delivered to you by special courier a phone book sized packet of pro HFCS propaganda. I was the lucky recipient of this lovely gift from the Corn Refiners a few months ago when I dared to suggest that many parents say they do not want their children consuming HFCS.