School food - Where did it all go wrong and can we right the ship?
September 14, 2020
We all remember the days of yesteryear when we cued up for the lunch line waiting for our gruel to be served to provide us with some sort of sustenance over the ensuing hours of school and sports or arts. We ate one meal a day at school, lunch. It was a starch, a protein and multiple vegetables and fruits. We ate and we lived. Obesity was rare. Picky eaters seemed rarer. I do not remember a single friend avoiding eating school food or a home packed lunch. We ate breakfast at home and rode the bus to school in our local community. We were not waking up at 4 or 5 am to catch the bus. We were not starving when we entered school after a long bus ride that began too early. What changed? When did school become primarily a source of calories and less about nourishment?
When did teacher and parent convenience take precedence over the children?
Fast forward to 2020. The convenience culture of America is now firmly rooted in our primary schools. Gone are the days of kitchens, cooks, real food and realistic school start times. Appeared are the microwaves, frozen calorie laden processed or canned foods that are summarily presented to our bleary-eyed children along with juice or milk. When did water begin to cost money while calorie laden chocolate milk or juice enjoy free status? Did anyone in governmental leadership keep their glasses on when deciding and writing the rules that water is costly while caloric beverages were free for a group of humans that struggle with weight like no generation prior? A simple word will suffice here, tragedy.
What could possibly be driving a group of well-educated and well-intentioned state and federal nutritionists to sanction a menu that covers multiple meals and allows the most vulnerable among us to have access to, choose often and suffer from poor quality food? The simple and only answer is money, federal and state mandates. I once spoke to a neighboring county's school's head nutritionist of whom I asked a simple question. Why does ketchup and spaghetti-based tomato sauce count as two servings of vegetables/fruits when it is neither a whole food nor healthy as they are loaded with sugar, preservatives and devoid of fiber? Her response was disheartening. "Because it is!" Unfortunately, she was pseudo-scientifically trying to justify this absurd reality. Why? Because over the years going back to President Reagan, congress has allowed the USDA to state that ketchup and tomato sauce can count as a vegetable. This has given educated individuals who know better the moxy to state as such. Clearly our conversation ended there. My conversations with the heads of North Carolina's school nutrition department were far more fruitful and rooted in a reality that I see play out daily. They are neither happy with nor content with the status quo, however, frustratingly, their hands are truly tied. I feel frustrated for them.
Let us think about the current state of school food for a minute? Your child could go to school in any form of body size and weight and be fed completely unhealthy food every day for a calendar school year driving systemic inflammation. Breakfast could be a frozen and then reheated breakfast egg, cheese, bacon biscuit served with juice and a high calorie muffin or sugar-based cereal or all of the above. Lunch occurs later with macaroni and cheese, a sweet potato muffin, an apple pear raisin crisp and maybe a mixed vegetable if chosen and all washed down with milk or juice again. The calories noted here are beyond bountiful while the quality is nothing short of a mental and physical disaster within their bodies. This meal reality will wreck the endocrine/immune/metabolism system of each child each time is consumed, which is unfortunately daily. Whatever happened to oatmeal, fresh fruit, eggs, water for breakfast followed by chicken legs, carrots, peas, rice and water for lunch? Where are the whole foods? The disparity between these two distinct meal types is mind numbing from a health perspective. To put a cherry on the top, let us add in the 60 birthday/holiday celebrations throughout the year that are a study in junk food, excess calories and disrupted behavior. I digress.
Currently, one in five American children lives in a food insecure environment which is defined as the inability to feed oneself due to a lack of resources. In our clinic, we have many children on free and reduced school-based lunch meals which is the primary daily source of calories and should be nutritious. What is not showing up in clinic is any starvation or caloric deprivation. What is showing up in volume is obesity, diabetes, liver damage and all of the signs of caloric excess and poor-quality food types. We do not have an American problem of food scarcity so much as a profound American problem of access to food quality. This is the scourge of a wealthy society that does not pride itself on the access of all its inhabitants to clean water, clean air and clean high-quality food. This gets back to my conversation with the registered dietician about Ketchup and spaghetti sauce in school. Is she well meaning, punching a clock or truly believing that the guidelines are of high quality? When our leaders knowingly keep a system in place that is hurting the public because of history, money or apathy, we are in trouble. This is truly where we find ourselves.
The continuation of the modern school nutrition guidelines despite the obvious health implications as the children stand in front of us filled with metabolic damage from this food system is paramount to abuse at the highest level. We need to return to effective modeling and choices. We need to return to active kitchens with chefs that serve real food that is nutritious and whole foods based. There is a precedence for this kind of massive change, the hospitals.
21 years ago, when I arrived in Salisbury, the food at Rowan Regional Medical Center now called Novant Health Rowan was nothing short of bad. Fried everything, limited fresh vegetables and fruits washed down with soda. Cardiac patients were eating the least heart healthy meal right after surgery to repair the damage that this food was causing. Fast forward to Chef Herron, leadership and a brand-new way to consume food. Novant Health Rowan is now a great place to eat. Every day, there are 4 or 5 vegetables, a protein and usually one starch. All freshly prepared by staff that are excited for us to eat their creations. There is a passion around food when it is cooked well, tasty and nutritious. Why can we not repeat the same dramatic transformation in the school system? Why SHOULD we not repeat the same dramatic transformation in the school system? Why DO we not repeat the same dramatic transformation in the school system?
It takes a strong leader to say NO to the junk food. It takes a strong leader to put only nutritious food forward. It takes a strong leader to put the child's health above the child's desires and that of big food companies. This is the essence of parenting. We know better than the taste buds of a child. Educators would never allow education to be poisoned as the food has been. It is time to take action. Where are the leaders? Where is the school's Chef Herron?
I truly believe that the United States of America has more than enough tax dollars to return schools to the days of chefs, kitchens and health. What we are lacking is leadership at the congressional and state government levels to push forward real and meaningful change. I repeat, we have the money.
Let us look at some numbers. In 2019, the United States government spent 39.2 billion dollars on foreign aid and 686.1 billion on defense. According to the federal government, 50.8 million children attended primary K-12 school. 29.7 million children received government sponsored food costing 13.7 billion dollars. If every child received 2 meals a day for 180 days of school, that equates to 10 billion meals. That is roughly a governmental allowance of less than 1.50$ per child per meal. What can you truly buy with 1.37$ per meal? Simple answer- junk quality food!
Give me 39.2 billion dollars earmarked for people that have nothing to do with our children, our country and our lives and we are dining in style! Is a foreign country more important than our own children's health and future? Is the defense budget that much more important then the health and welfare of the next generation? How am I even asking this question in 2020? I don't care where you take the money from as long as we feed our children healthy nourishing food that grows their minds, bodies and spirit.
Let us look at this from a long-term perspective. If we right this ship, then all of these school children will receive 66% of their calories from a high-quality source. The downstream effects are profound. Disease rates will plummet. Behavior will improve. Happiness will sky rocket. And for the policy folks, Medicaid and Medicare expenses finally start to go in a positive direction through prevention and not post disease expensive therapies. As clear a win-win as you will ever see.
It is time to get this done. We need parents, parent teacher associations, and students to write letters, protest, speak up and effect change for this massive problem.
Change is necessary and good,