Thursday, May 24, 2012

The School Lunch Debate: When Mystery Meat Is Truly A Mystery...

With the rising tide of juvenile type 2 diabetes, the debate on school lunches is one which is slowly starting to take the stage. It is, however, one of those subjects in which everyone has an opinion -- but not many have an actual evidence based opinion. Throw in the wrench that every school district is different, and you'll find mudslinging from all sides of the opinion spectrum:

Why can't parents just make healthful lunches for students? 

Well, right now, some schools are actually BANNING parents from preparing school lunches for their kids, claiming it is the parents making unhealthful meal choices. Of course, this is often true... No one can deny that. But it also makes many of us with diabetic loved ones CRINGE at the thought of what a school cafeteria lady, or health department, might think is a healthful school lunch. These places often lack in options. I'm thinking a main course of carbohydrates slathered in cheese and hot dogs, with a side of carbohydrates slathered in butter or salt, with a dessert full of carbohydrates, and a glass full of carbohydrates (because it has vitamins, so it must be good for your health, unlike that can of soda.) Your main sources of protein come from that powdered, grade A government issued cheese, and that powdered, grade A government issued milk. YAY. To top it off, throw an apple at it, for good measure, because apples make ANYTHING look healthy.

Some will argue, why can't parents just trust the school lunch system? 

'I always got healthful meals from the school system, and I turned out JUST fine.' I love these people the most. To them, anecdotal evidence is ALL the evidence that anyone will ever need, and it somehow, trumps everything. It's like seeing nothing but yellow parakeets, and assuming there are ONLY yellow parakeets in existence because that's all your local store carries. (Never mind that many of these folks have NO IDEA what a healthy meal even looks like, and tend to think that all a kid needs to do to stay healthy is to avoid candy and soda, and eat lots of fruitsandvegetables.)

Well, here's something that will blow your mind.

Did you know that the original idea of a 
'food pyramid' started  as a way to help 
ease food costs by spending money on basic, 
cheaper foods, and still get nutrition? The rest 
of the foods were meant as complements 
to enhance whatever nutrients were missing. 
Ever since the USDA started making low fat, 
high carb recommendations in the 80s, and 
implemented it's OWN food pyramid in 1992, 
obesity rates have skyrocketed.
The USDA describes their National School Lunch Program as: "a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. The program was established under the National School Lunch Act, signed by President Harry Truman in 1946."

Right away, when you brush away the chaff... what should jump at you is the 'low-cost' descriptor used in this paragraph. What does this, casually thrown in, adjective have to say about this program? What is hidden between the lines? Well, what they don't tell you is that the National School Lunch Program started as a way to help a poor, starving population, through government subsidies --  the same subsidies programs which are still, to this day, overpowering our agricultural industry, and making it possible to produce mass amounts of low quality, less nutritionally dense foods. (McDonald's anyone?) When you invest in low quality, less nutritionally dense foods, they become LOW-COST, and easy to mass market to a multitude of industries, and other countries. Smaller farms CANNOT compete with the HUGE agribusiness industry that has come to dominate the markets, including... you guessed it -- the school lunch program market. While the school 'lunch ladies,' might VEND food for you, it usually comes pre-packaged, pre-made, or 'ready to make' sources, and local state federal agencies will contract their local school lunch program to a food service management company, to save a few bucks. If your local school district does not contract to one of these, they are the EXCEPTION.

The three companies, right now, that dominate the industry are Aramark, Compass Group, and Sodexo. They mass market less nutritional foods, serve nutritionally imbalanced meals, cut corners to save dollars, and contract with fast food giants to market to kids -- yes, including, soda manufacturers. Not only that, but they have been under investigation in the past, for serving foods SO low in quality, they were rejected by fast food industry safety standards. (It's gotta take a lot of balls to serve a kid something WORSE than fake fast food meat.) They have such a strong arm in the system, many of them have been able to lobby, and block legislation that would improve standards, including legislation that would have banned soda vending machines in some schools, for example. 

So when you throw in less nutritionally dense foods (so, even if you have a small serving of them, they're still not so great for you,) in an array of unbalanced meals (all carbs, and hardly anything else), no allowances for or enforcing of portion control (and just eat what you want, and how much you want of it), and the attending results of kids who will a.) not feel the stop and go of their hunger signals anymore, and b.) constantly feel hungry because they got no real nutrition, you will get increased likelihood of illness, development of chronic diseases, and a national fat kid tsunami.

That's right... every time your kid eats at one of these national school lunch programs, it's eating food that's probably worse than McDonald's. (And even if it would appear "balanced," the fact is... it's still food that is nutritionally inferior. Remember that. It's like comparing a home made creme filled cake, to a Twinkie. They are technically, the same thing, but that's where it ends. One of them still has FIBER, and many, many vitamins and minerals. I'll let you guess which one that is.)

Are you freaked out yet? YOU SHOULD BE.

Still, some people have blind faith in their National School Lunch Programs... And disbelieve or disregard those who try to stand up against it, and call for change. (Including some politicians.) But folks are fighting BACK. 

Folks like Sarah Wu, who "compelled by her own frustration with school meals — both as a mother and a teacher ... known anonymously as "Mrs. Q." committed to eating school lunch every school day in 2010 just like her students. Mrs. Q documented her experience and described the meals by blogging, tweeting and sharing photos on her blog Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project." Her blog is one of the first blogs to help capture national attention on this very concerning issue. Mrs. Q risked her employment on this... and there were many days I worried she'd get caught. Still, I cheered for her. Her voice has been effecting some serious awareness and change... but we need more.

More, nationally, as well as globally... Like little 9 year old, Martha Payne, from Scotland... who writes about her poor lunch school program at NeverSeconds. While you're not going to see her giving you an in-depth analysis on the corruption, and backdraft, of agribusiness subsidies... she will hold up every meal to critique, and scrutiny, so you can see with your own eyes what she and her peers are being served.

. . . 

America is at a critical point, right now... we are at a point where it's starting to matter very little what type of food you eat, because it was all cheaply made, and nutritionally bankrupt. Movies like "King Corn," "Supersize Me," and "Food, Inc.," have created some discussion... but quickly get swept under the rug as 'passing the buck,' and not taking personal responsibility for what we eat. But we are clearly living in a very obesogenic environment where it is getting increasingly difficult to make right and wrong decisions, and increasingly easy to be deceived. Yes, a lot of foods that make false health claims have food labels, and we could be better trained and educated at reading them... but what if we thought we were eating meat, and instead were getting meat with an incredibly high risk of bacteria, and lots of corn filler? What if it was given to us by a school lunch program, with no labels (just trust), and not the 'you should know better,' fast food industry?

Yes, we have freedom of choice, in America... as to what we eat. But to what EXTENT should we let the government and the food industry tamper with our food supplies? Market to us? To children who haven't yet developed some of the necessary critical thinking skills, and disciplines, to make good life choices? (Especially, when they don't even have a parent around, to help...) Or to populations with less income, less education, and less access to nutritious alternatives?

The rights and freedoms of those who want to make me less healthy (and not just by consuming more 'fats' and 'sugars,' mind you), start mattering VERY LITTLE to me... when the lives of children, and the future of our nations are involved.

I don't know how ALL chronic illnesses, cancers, and autoimmune conditions come to pass... but sometimes, I have a very good idea what might be contributing to their explosion... And it's not just having an extra piece of pie.


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