Will Ketchup Again Count as a Vegetable? USDA Delays School Lunch Rules

December 4, 2017
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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently working on a book about textile artisans.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) last week announced changes to school lunch rules, allowing schools for the time being to serve low-fat flavoured milk (chocolate milk), and relaxing both sodium and whole grains requirements.

Full compliance for some provisions is pushed back to the end of the 2018-19 school year, and for others, until 2021.

These tweaks don’t at present threaten the overall 2011 framework of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Health experts quoted in a NBC News report on the rule change, including American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown,  challenged the USDA’s rationales for the changes: that kids are throwing food away, and some schools having a tough time complying with the standards:

“In the last five years, nearly 100 percent of the nation’s participating schools have complied with updated school meal standards. Kids across the country have clearly benefited from these changes,” Brown said in a statement.

“Their meals have less salt, sugar and saturated fat, and they eat 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit. Why would the USDA want to roll back the current standards and reverse this excellent progress?”

Now– I should point out, for the record, my headline notwithstanding– this is a far cry from when the Reagan USDA sought to classify ketchup as a vegetable (and which, to be fair, the agency backed away from, as discussed here). Lest you think I’m being unduly hysterical in mentioning that issue, I’ll point out that tomato reclassification has not fully been banished, with the Atlantic reporting as recently as 2011 that a Senate bill sought to reclassify tomato paste used in pizza as a vegetable. So, we most certainly need to keep a watch on the processed tomato products front. But I digress.

Problems with School Lunch Programs Are Longstanding

In a cross-post I posted from AlterNet earlier this year,
Another Privatization Fail: 5 Things You Don’t Know About School Lunches (but Probably Should), Cynthia Lopez highlighted problems with the current school lunch program– which  certainly predate the Trump administration.  Indeed, while Proust recalled those famous madeleines, the school lunch memories of many Americans are not nearly so pleasant.

The first and foremost problem I well remember– and which Lopez noted– is basic palatability:

On the surface, the Hunger-Free Kids Act makes a lot of sense. It requires school meals to be lower in fat, lower in calories and lower in sodium, as well as contain more lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. The hallmarks of a well-balanced diet, right? Unfortunately, in order to continue to meet student expectations, school lunch programs are often serving reengineered versions of the foods students were accustomed to (think: whole-grain doughnuts, cheesesteak sandwich served on whole-grain bread with cheese low in both fat and salt, and some form of lean meat that some say is unidentifiable to many students). It’s fair to say that these reinvented foods aren’t meeting the bar in students’ eyes.

It seems obvious to me that what’s needed is something more far-reaching than asking Big Food to produce rejigged versions of unhealthy stalwarts. The goal should  instead probably ,  resemble what Jamie Oliver is attempting to do in the UK, with Jamie’s Food Revolution.

Unwanted Food Ends Up as Waste

My aim in this short post is not so ambitious and far-sighted, and instead is to focus on another issue: waste.

Over to  Lopez again:

It also turns out there’s a lot of waste. The [Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act] requires that students participating in school lunch programs have certain items on their trays before exiting the lunch line—meaning many fruits and vegetables are dumped into the trash, untouched.

As I’ve mentioned before, in my intro to the Lopez piece cited above, my first encounter with school lunch waste was in 1970 or 1971, when I led an insurrection among the fourth grade girls at the Allamuchy Elementary School. Our goal– which we achieved– was to be allowed to serve as tray scrapers, a task previously reserved to the boys. For some reason, students weren’t allowed to dump their own waste into the trash, but instead, handed their trays to a tray scraper, who did so for them.

Don’t know why this seemed to be such a burning feminist issue. </span>Yet it bothered me that anything– even a menial task such as kitchen clean-up– was reserved to boys only.

And so from my experience as a tray scraper, I can well recall what happens to food that children don’t like: it gets trashed. During my Allamuchy days, the single most loathed food we were served was canned prunes. No one ate those. All got binned.

So, I’m thinking, the USDA could have a point here.

Not, the realist in me realizes that the far more likely motivation for the policy delay is pressure from food producers who wish to continue to push unhealthy food to school children, rather than produce healthier options. And, I also foresee, that USDA’s seemingly modest delay may actually only be a first step, toward a further rollback or reconsideration of the current standards.

Allow me to quote from Lopez again:

For every company offering healthy meal options for schools, there are several making bank by marketing unhealthy options. And ultimately, if student participation isn’t there, the program—no matter how healthy it may be—won’t have the desired impact.

With that in mind, it’s certainly necessary to keep a close watch on what the USDA does, with respect not only to this rule delay, but also to any future school lunch proposals.

Food Waste

More immediately and independently, food waste is no doubt as big a problem now as it was when I attended elementary school in Allamuchy. And perhaps it’s even more pressing, given the state of landfills, and the role waste management practices play in promoting global warming.

With that in mind, I noticed a report on a program some Florida schools have recently adopted, that not only reduces food waste, yet also helps feed the hungry. As reported in AJC.com in Elementary school ‘share tables’ keep unwanted lunch food out of trash:

As 9-year-old Sabrina Agosto left her school’s lunch line, she dropped her carton of milk on the cafeteria’s “share and donation” table and then snagged an extra yogurt.

“I don’t like milk,” explained the fourth grader at Aloma Elementary School in Orange County. “I really like them,” she said of her twin containers of strawberry yogurt.

Lunchtime at Aloma means a steady stream of youngsters putting items they don’t want on the table and picking up extras of things they do like. On a recent afternoon, containers of milk and yogurt, wrapped cheese sticks, and packages of crackers, orange slices, and coleslaw all came to and then left the table.

Whatever isn’t picked up by students is donated to a nearby church that gives the food to the homeless.

The 2-year-old effort aims to eliminate food waste and to provide extra nutrition both to hungrier kids in the cafeteria and to needy residents in the community.

Aloma is one of about 20 public elementary schools in Orange that have started a so-called share table. Some, like Aloma, donate their excess to charities and others send the food — which cannot, by law, be reused in the lunch program — home with students whose families struggle to make ends meet.

The article explains that the USDA endorsed the share tables idea in 2016 as an “innovative strategy.” Currently, students passing through the lunch line are required to take and place certain items on their tray– including a fruit or vegetable. Yet requiring a student to take the item doesn’t  necessarily lead to it being eaten.

Over to AJC.com again:

Martha Albright, Aloma’s cafeteria manager, said the share table has cut down on waste and mess in the lunch room because students don’t play with and then throw out food they don’t want to eat.

“The custodians love it,” she said.

Setting up share and donate tables in all schools wouldn’t alone save the planet. But it’s a step that could be taken more or less immediately, at the local level, would cost little, and would redirect food from school trash cans to the hungry in a community. And maybe it, would spark changes in the way at least some kids think about wasting food.  

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