The Herald: Serve healthy school lunches

November 5, 2012 

We wonder if those congressional lawmakers complaining about governmental “food nannies” are aware that the nation is in the middle of a growing obesity epidemic.

In 2010, the Democratic-controlled Congress passed federal limits on the calories of school lunches served to 32 million students. The rules require schools in the federal subsidized lunch program to serve more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free and low-fat milk.

They also limit calories to 650 for students in kindergarten through fifth grades, and to 700 for students in sixth grade through eighth grades. High school students are served 850-calorie lunches.

The obvious goal is to encourage students to eat healthier. And supporters of the rules reason that, if American taxpayers are helping to pay for school lunches, government can have a say about the content of those lunches.

But Republican critics have jumped on the restrictions as a symbol of Washington’s regulatory excess. Critics claim students are not getting enough to eat, and point to videos produced by high school students showing volleyball players collapsing on the court from hunger.

“The goal of the school lunch program is supposed to be feeding children, not filling the trash cans with uneaten food,” said U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.

That seems a bit contradictory. What’s the problem – kids not getting enough food to eat or uneaten food being thrown into trash cans?

Alyn G. Kiel, spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department, which enforces the rules, said the new standards are based on recommendations from an independent panel of doctors, nutritionists and other experts.

She added that the calorie range actually exceeds what most schools were serving students previously.

Significantly, the standards also place no limit on the food that students can buy in addition to or instead of the taxpayer-subsidized meals, or what they can bring from home. And student athletes can buy extra servings at lunch if they want.

American taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidize school lunches that are full of empty calories and unhealthy food. Students can get junk food outside of school.

Americans need to face the fact that obesity is one of the nation’s most serious health concerns. Researchers predict that by 2030, more than half of all adults in a majority of states will be obese.

That, in turn, will fuel a rise in heart disease, diabetes, stroke and perhaps even some types of cancer.

Healthy school lunches alone won’t solve the problem. But school is one place where educators have a chance to influence the eating habits of students, especially young students, and put them on a path to healthier eating.

Labeling this effort as regulatory excess by food nannies is misleading and unfair. Do the critics really advocate serving students high-calorie, nutrition-deficient lunches because that’s what they say they want?

If so, they are doing students – and the nation – a disservice.

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