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School Lunch Ruling: Tomato Paste Remains a "Veggie"

November 17, 2011

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Last January the U.S.D.A. proposed changes to the nation’s school lunch program for the first time in 15 years. The rules would add more fruits and green vegetables to the daily lunch menu, cut the amount of potatoes served, and limit sodium levels. 

On Monday, Congress blocked those proposed rules.

At a time when one-third of American children are obese or overweight, tomato paste on pizza will continue to count as a vegetable.

An article from the New York Times discussed the blocked changes earlier this week, presenting both sides of the issue. For health-conscious parents and other critics, it’s easy to find the new update to the bill appalling. How can pizza and french fries replace leafy greens and whole grains? And if the government truly wants to reverse the health crisis, why would this not be the place to start?

But it’s not that simple. Many factors go into Congress’ decision to block the bill, all backed by supporting arguments. The American Frozen Food Institute said the restrictions would cause schools to serve food that’s not popular among students, resulting in thrown-out, wasted meals.  The National Potato Council argues that 90 percent of potatoes served in schools are baked, boiled or mashed, and not deep-fried.

Perhaps the most convincing argument is that of districts with many low-income students: preparing healthier meals requires an additional cost that’s simply not available. 

While the bill revision is new, the school lunch topic is not, and many members of the Integrative Nutrition community have spoken out about it. We believe there are possible solutions for the issues revolving around the lunch bill. There are ways to incorporate veggies into a child’s meal, deceptive as it may be. Children need to be educated about what they’re eating, and can be become enthusiastic about eating healthily when given the chance.

While there are many roadblocks to acknowledge, finding a way to integrate affordable, whole foods into school lunches needs to be a priority. While the proposed $6.8 billion regulation would add about 14 cents to the cost of a meal, it’s important to ask, how much will we be spending on health care in the future, trying to fix how children ate from a young age?

With the rapid rise of diabetes and other diseases, we need Health Coaches now more than ever to help others discover healthier food choices. Packing a lunch can be a great option, but many parents are forced to rely on cafeteria meals. For these people, they may not control what their children eat at school everyday, but it is possible to set the menu for meals at home. Educate your own children on what they’re eating, and talk to them about the foods they choose at school. Create a balance in meals (making sure it’s kid-approved!) so they’ll enjoy protein, whole grains and vegetables. Sooner or later kids may start opting for the same foods at school that they enjoy at home. Sharing these same concepts with other parents can effectively spread knowledge into other homes.

As for the delay in initiatives by the Agriculture Department to make school lunches healthier, we’ll keep an eye out for further developments. In an official statement, the U.S.D.A. expresses dedication to the cause:

“While it is unfortunate that some in Congress chose to bow to special interests, U.S.D.A. remains committed to practical, science-based standards for school meals that improve the health of our children.”

At a time when child nutrition is such a wide concern in this country, we remain hopeful that Congress will see the value of the proposed changes, and maybe reconsider claiming a slice of pizza as a veggie.

How do you feel about Congress blocking the proposed changes made the Agriculture Department? What can you do to improve health in your own home?