| The federally funded National School Lunch Program was founded by President Harry Truman in 1946. Following the years of deprivation that were the Great Depression and hot on the heels of the Second World War and the rationing that supported the war effort, it was a great idea. It was designed to provide every child in America with a jumpstart toward a nutritious day, supplying school systems with commodity foods and basics to feed all our young.
It also provided a way for agribusiness and the dairy and meat industry to stick a foot in the door of every school system in America, entreating a captive audience of impressionable youngsters to "drink three glasses a day" and guaranteeing a future market for their products.
Nearly 60 years later, it is far past time to take a hard look at what we are feeding our children in our schools and more importantly, the influence-peddling that Big Business is buying with Corporate Cash.
Public interest about nutrition and food has become a sea change that is driving a healthy food revolution. Health food stores are expanding and their numbers increasing. Even major chain stores like Bakers and Albertsons carry wide selections of what once were considered specialty items. Soy milk, rice milk, organic foods and produce, whole grains, veggie burgers, soy cheese, organic pancake mix and vegetarian items of all kinds on the shelves demonstrate the bottom-line appeal that those chain stores acknowledge. No mega-store would carry those items without a public demand, and the public is turning to healthy alternatives.
The general populace is patronizing health food stores, choosing healthy, fresh food diets and shunning institutional or over-processed foods. And adults who do choose to eat junk food, usually know the consequences. The public is eating healthier or at least trying. How far behind are our school systems?
Big Business gets the first bite
Pick up any school district menu and on the surface it may look healthy enough. So where are the problems? Well, the very menu copy we received from a local school district carried an ad for milk, with a cows head saying "Moo to you, too." The National Dairy Council loves that milk is a staple of school diets. This is at a time when controversy surrounds the long-standing contention that dairy products are healthy. Juvenile PETA campaigns notwithstanding, there is some doubt among serious scientists and the public whether milk should be in our schools. Recent research both in the U.K. and at Harvard shows definite links to various cancers and heart specialists know that coronary disease begins at an early age, exacerbated by animal proteins and animal fat.
A closer look at school menus shows that there is a preponderance of processed foods and meats. Nearly every meal is based around animal protein. Few if any fresh vegetables are used. Given a choice between cheeseburgers and lame, limp overcooked vegetables, which would any kid choose? Especially after years of propaganda and being sold the cheeseburger.
Youngsters are sold and told what they should eat in high-powered marketing campaigns aimed directly at them. Every major candy bar spends 50 million dollars a year to get the message to kids: Eat me!
And worse, if a school system dietitian or administrator tries to change things and plan for fresher foods, often their hands are tied.
"Its an industry supply chain and its locked in. Even if the menu planners and chefs are aware and want to make healthier meals, its hard for them to break that chain," said Patrick Davis, owner of The Granery Whole Foods Market.
"Even though people are eating healthier now, the parents Ive talked to have some serious misgivings about school lunches," he continued. "Public eating habits are changing but unfortunately, the institutional kitchen is the last one to change because they have the most locked-in supply chain. And the poor person running it has the least power to change it."
For example, any adult who can read USAToday likely has heard that research shows that soy protein has healthy benefits. Getting it on the school menu is another thing.
When school programs tried to incorporate soy protein in meal planning, the National Cattlemans Beef Association, the powerful lobbying interest group for the beef industry, fought hard to get limits to just three percent content. They won. The soy industry has to jump through hoops to get vegetable protein products in school menu programs.
The winds of change
There is hope. As adults turn to healthier options, children may follow. Guiding bodies in forward-thinking communities are taking action. The San Francisco School Board adopted a "no soda pop contracts" policy for their district. The US Department of Agriculture has a program supporting efforts of school systems to include local farm produce in lunch programs. We could do well to look into it for our childrens sake. Remember, you are what you eat and they are what you feed them.
Heartland Healing examines various alternative forms of healing. It is provided as a source of information, not as medical advice. It is not an endorsement of any particular therapy, either by the writer or The Reader. Access past columns at www.HeartlandHealing.com
Pour Some Sugar on Me
Nutritional consultant Vern Varona once described how far refined sugar is from its natural state. Refined sugar comes from sugar cane, that fibrous, bamboo-like stem that contains a sweet sap. Maybe you recall images of smiling Hawaiian children chewing on raw cane. Its a handful. It takes about 18 inches of sugar cane to produce one teaspoon of refined sugar. So, if you think about it clearly for a moment, the natural way to consume a teaspoon of sugar is by eating 18 inches of sugar cane. Want to try it? Didnt think so.
Yet every time one of our kids drinks one can of soda pop, they consume about 10 teaspoons of sugar. Drinking a soda is the equivalent of eating 15 feet of sugar cane. Something isnt quite right about that. And now soda pop owns our schools.
Across the country, entire school systems are entering into lucrative deals with junk food suppliers. In 1998 a Dallas-area school district inked a 3 million-dollar deal with Dr. Pepper giving the soft-drink company exclusive sales rights in the schools and erecting a sign on the roof of the Grapevine Middle School touting the brand to passers-by. Coca-Cola outbid Pepsi this summer and acquired rights to the captive customers in the Charles County, Maryland schools for a cool million bucks. One Omaha area high school has corporate giants Arbys and Pizza Hut cater lunch on two days of the week. Nearly every school district has some sort of sweetheart deal with some junk food dealer.
Junk food marketing in schools is not about health, not about education, not about good nutrition. It's about the next generation becoming brand-loyal at the earliest age possible!
It may seem hard to believe, but many kids today dont discriminate between a whole, fresh apple and a Hostess apple pie. They think a fruit is a fruit, whether it is in its natural state or processed with a couple of ounces of sugar and animal fat. Kids dont know that whole, fresh steamed green beans from the produce aisle are more nutritious than over-cooked canned ones laced with salt. And they arent learning that at lunch.
The soft-drink industry has consistently portrayed its products as being positively healthful, saying they are 90% water and contain sugars found in nature. A poster that the National Soft Drink Association has provided to teachers states:
"As refreshing sources of needed liquids and energy, soft drinks represent a positive addition to a well-balanced diet....These same three sugars also occur naturally, for example, in fruits....In your body it makes no difference whether the sugar is from a soft drink or a peach."
Are you kidding me?
This is what kids are learning about from the hard-sell marketers that we allow in our school lunchrooms. It will never matter what we try to teach them in the classroom about whole foods and nutrition as long as the junk food message is delivered loudly and pervasively with the strongest tactics Madison Avenue can think up.