Our Views: Schools take detour on nutrition

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Gazette Editorial Board
Thursday, May 4, 2017

Welcome back, chocolate milk.

And white bread.

And saltier foods.

Some school officials are praising a Trump administration decision to delay the implementation of stricter nutrition standards advocated by former first lady Michelle Obama.

It's a bit of an odd response given the overall lack of support the Trump administration has shown public education, starting with the naming of a school-voucher advocate Betsy DeVos as secretary of education.

Admittedly, local schools are in a tough position because their menus are largely at the mercy of food suppliers, which have lobbied Congress for years to resist Obama-era initiatives. These companies would prefer to revert to the days when they could load as much sugar and salt into products as they deemed fit. Diabetes and obesity are not their problems.

Furthermore, many kids come to school with bodies trained to consume large quantities of sugar and salt. When even savory foods such as spaghetti sauce contain copious amounts of sweeteners, it's difficult to expect schools to turn kids on to healthier choices.

The former first lady tried to address the nation's rising obesity and diabetes rates. While some kids and school cooks panned the results of those efforts—such as pizza crusts that taste like cardboard—the first lady challenged school cafeterias to do more with less sugar and salt.

The Obama plan called for steadily increasing nutritional standards with new rules to take effect for the 2017-18 school year. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture partially rolled back those rules and delayed implementation of the new standards until 2020.

As it stands, kids will now be able to select sugar-fused chocolate milk, and meals can contain up to 1,230 mg of sodium at the elementary level, a change made in 2014. The provision delayed until 2020 would have required sodium levels to drop to 935 mg.

Delaying the nutritional standards' implementation unwittingly perpetuates the myth that healthier foods must taste worse than their unhealthier counterparts. Some proponents of the rollbacks are advancing a wobbly argument, claiming it's better to feed kids unhealthier foods than to have them dump healthier foods into the garbage.

But parents with cooking skills know healthier foods prepared the right way can, in fact, taste better than unhealthy foods. Sure, serving healthier, fresher ingredients costs more, and school officials have complained implementing the new standards would have hit their budgets. But the long-run benefit of healthier outcomes makes the short-term higher expense worthwhile.

If our goal is to do right for children, the answer isn't to embrace tastier, less healthy foods but to agitate for the funding needed to make healthier foods more appetizing.

The implication in supporting the Trump administration's rollback is to lower children's expectations for healthy eating. Local schools cannot afford to chart their own nutritional course because their lunch programs heavily rely on federal funds. They need the federal government to set the example for good nutrition and in the larger fight against obesity and diabetes.


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