Advocating healthier school lunches
Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, there has never been a school lunch program fully free of politics.
The new guidelines for school lunches, announced Jan. 25 by First Lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, are no exception, said Suzanne Havala Hobbs.
The new guidelines, which will go into effect in the 2012–13 school year, represent the first major nutritional overhaul of school meals in more than 15 years, Hobbs said.
And the good news, from a purely nutritional point of view, is that the guidelines are better than ever before, said Hobbs, who directs the Executive Doctoral Program in Health Leadership in the Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Department of Health Policy and Management.
Under the new rules, the ubiquitous pizza and French fries won’t disappear from the lunch lines, but they will be made with healthier ingredients. And for the first time, entire meals will have calorie caps and most trans fats will be banned.
Sodium will gradually decrease over a 10-year period. And while milk remains the designated beverage, it will now have to be low in fat, and flavored milk will have to be nonfat.
Alice Ammerman, a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Gillings School, along with David Cavallo, a Ph.D. candidate in the department who has partnered with Ammerman on a host of school nutrition projects, have taken a pragmatic rather than purist approach in evaluating the changes.
“If students have French fries now and then, provided it is a good quality fat that they are fried in, it is not a terrible thing,” Ammerman said. “Potato production is good for the North Carolina economy as well – especially sweet potatoes, our state vegetable.”
Pizza is not necessarily a horrible food either, Ammerman added, now that more whole grains will be used in the crusts and there are many options for healthy toppings.
Ammerman, Cavallo and Hobbs all applauded the first lady for taking on an issue that would not seem to be controversial, yet always is.
“On one level, everybody agrees that children should eat better,” Cavallo said. “It is a sort of broad, happy goal that everybody shares. But the actual implementation of new guidelines gets into the kind of thorny questions that we saw when this bill was getting passed. It did not just breeze through.”
Progress in fits and starts
Hobbs sees the latest improvements as part of a continuing political struggle where progress has always come in fits and starts and can take decades to achieve.
Throughout the 1990s, Hobbs served as a consultant and advocate supporting reform of the National School Lunch Program. Later, when she came to Carolina to earn her doctorate in health policy and management, she wrote her dissertation on the influence that various interest groups had on federal school meal regulations from 1992 until 1996.
What she learned from her study is that the other constituent groups had valid concerns that had to be addressed, including school food service workers who had more to do with blocking reforms in the 1990s than the powerful meat and dairy lobbies she had assumed were the culprits.
Hobbs said the new guidelines are a further refinement to the major breakthrough achieved in 1995 when, for the first time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) set nutrition standards for school lunches in accordance with its own Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The USDA had jointly published the dietary guidelines with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services since 1980, she added. That 15-year delay in matching school lunch standards with its own nutrition standards, Hobbs said, reflects the ongoing tension between the science of nutrition and the commerce of food production.
Changing nutrition needs
The objectives of the program have continued to change as well to serve the shifting needs of the country, Hobbs said.
Created in 1946, the National School Lunch Program served as a means of providing low-cost or free school lunch meals to qualified students, and at the same time, establishing a way to prop up food prices by absorbing farm surpluses.
A lesser-known fact about the program’s inception involved concern that malnutrition posed a threat to national security, Hobbs said.
During World War II, at least 40 percent of potential military recruits were malnourished, and that is why military leaders helped convince Congress to pass the National School Lunch Act in 1946.
Now, the military has the opposite problem. According to Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization of retired military leaders, more than 9 million Americans of prime recruiting age are “too fat to fight.”
Obama has also led the efforts to combat childhood obesity with her signature “Let’s Move!” initiative, Hobbs said.
Despite the heightened sense of urgency over children’s health and the rise of childhood obesity and diabetes, the business interests of food suppliers cannot be ignored, Hobbs said.
The new guidelines were also designed to combat childhood obesity and are based on 2009 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine (the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences).
In 2009, the USDA asked the Institute of Medicine to update current nutritional standards and related meal requirements. Among its initial recommendations was for the department to discontinue the practice of counting tomato paste on pizzas as a vegetable.
But in November 2011, an agriculture appropriations bill passed by Congress blocked the proposed change. Congress also stopped the department from limiting potatoes to two servings a week.
Among those who fought the initial recommendations were potato growers and food companies that produce frozen pizzas for schools.
“Food is politics and we’re making incremental steps toward improving school menus,” Hobbs said. “Just like with any political process, compromise is part of it. I feel, as a nutrition advocate, that we came out a winner with these new guidelines, and I’ll bet industry felt it came out a winner as well.”
On the cafeteria’s front lines
The bottom line also influences the availability of healthy food choices.
Ammerman and Cavallo are involved in a variety of pilot projects aimed at improving the financial health of lunch programs offered in schools.
The programs are all different in the quality and variety of food they serve, but they are all the same in one fundamental respect, Ammerman said. All rely upon the revenue generated through sales to sustain themselves – and to improve.
North Carolina, unlike some other states, offers no state subsidy to school lunch programs.
“One of the ways parents can support the school lunch program is to have their children actually buy school lunches,” Ammerman said. “In that sense, it is like supporting any other local business. The more customers they have, the more operating money they have to make their product even better.”
Both as a parent and as a nutrition advocate, Ammerman continues to do her part to support school efforts to promote healthy food and increased physical activity.
When her two boys played sports at Smith Middle School in Chapel Hill, Ammerman served three years as president of the Smith Cyclones’ booster club.
When they needed to raise money for scoreboards, the club members replaced candy bar sales with a healthy fundraiser meal using locally grown food. The fundraiser event, dubbed the Cyclone Games, included scooter basketball, relay races and big-ball volleyball. Every year since the games began in 2007, former Carolina basketball player Eric Montross has shown his support by showing up for color commentary, Ammerman added.
Ammerman and Cavallo are now working on three projects through the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, which Ammerman directs.
“GotHealth” is a pilot intervention study designed to test a web-based nutrition and physical activity screening and tracking program for middle school students, Ammerman said.
“Taste texting” is another project that will be piloted at Chapel Hill High School in the fall.
“This study will attempt to improve the nutritional choices students make by providing a mechanism that will allow them to order limited, healthier choices ahead of time using text messaging or the web,” Ammerman said.
Ammerman and Cavallo have also just begun a project in Rockingham County that received funding from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation and the Reidsville Area Foundation in an effort to provide healthier meals at schools while also supporting local farmers who are transitioning from tobacco to vegetable production.
The project will offer training and equipment to cafeteria workers so they can handle the demands of preparing more fresh fruits and vegetables under the new federal guidelines.
“There is a nice merging of interests here,” Ammerman said.
Cavallo said Ammerman has a penchant for finding those common interests, which he sees as the key to success.
“I don’t think farmers or food companies or food service employees want to make unhealthy food for kids,” Cavallo said. “So the challenge will continue to be how do we find common ground so we can come up with a system that works for everybody.”
For the past decade, Hobbs has written “On the Table,” a weekly column in The News & Observer that helps people make sense of the latest diet and health news. This week’s Wednesday column is about the new school lunch guidelines.