Summertime and the livin’ is easy. No more readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmatic. No more teachers’ dirty looks. And no more federally mandated standards for school lunches.
Those standards are on shaky ground now that a House committee has passed a Republican-backed measure that would allow school districts to temporarily opt out of the program, which has been called “gastro-fascism” by some and the waste of a lot of good food by others.
The school nutrition standards were passed in 2010 with the support of the White House and set mandates to reduce sodium and increase whole grains and servings of fresh fruits and vegetables.
They were an outgrowth of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” program to fight the increase in childhood obesity, an issue that needs to be addressed. The Centers for Disease Control reports that obesity has doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the last 30 years.
One-third of the population 19 and younger in now overweight or obese, according to the CDC, creating health issues that will become expensive health problems as they get older. Heck, even our national security may be at stake: Some military officials are fearful they won’t be able to find enough fit recruits to serve.
This used to be considered a problem found mainly among the poor, who had limited access to healthy food and were forced to spend their money on cheap — but nutritionally poor — processed foods.
That’s clearly not the case now, as middle-class families where both adults work opt for convenience, the cereal aisle at any supermarket looks like the candy aisle and a bucket of fried chicken or a pizza becomes the main course for the family dinner.
The farm-to-fork movement may be trendy, and organic may be growing in popularity, but a lot of people don’t have the time or inclination to prepare the food, assuming they can afford it.
So as a partial answer to the problem, the federal government has stepped in with a one-size program that does not fit all. Once again, a problem that should be addressed at home has been foisted on the schools without the funds to implement it, forcing some school districts to take money from academic programs to meet the new nutrition standards.
The people who are supposed to benefit from this — the children — are apparently less than receptive. The program has produced a dumpster derby, with cafeteria garbage cans swelling with fruits, veggies and other healthful foods rejected by students.
“We can’t force students to eat something they don’t want,” Lyman Graham, food service director for schools near Roswell, N.M., told The Washington Post. “Many families in the Southwest won’t accept whole-grain tortillas.”
Kids in Georgia love their fried chicken; that’s been replaced with an herb-baked version. When schools in Tennessee replaced flaky white biscuits with a whole-grain variety, one official reported a “massive amount of rejection.”
As is usually the case when bureaucrats write regulations, the devil is in the details. A recent story in The Union about the introduction of a salad bar at Bell Hill Academy reported that to meet state and federal requirements for the National School Lunch Program, meals have to include the following:
A couple ounces of protein, a whole grain serving, three-fourths of a cup of vegetables, a half-cup of fruit and milk. But wait, it gets even better. According to Suzanne Grass, head of the Grass Valley School District’s child nutrition services:
“During the course of a week, that three-fourths of a cup of vegetable they’re required to have every day has to have a half a cup minimum of green vegetable, half a cup minimum of beans and three-quarters of a cup of a red orange vegetable over the course of a week.”
Or you could just say “To hell with it” and order a Happy Meal.
All of this has prompted the School Nutrition Association, which was initially an enthusiastic supporter of the new guidelines, to lobby for the kind of opt-out bill the House committee approved, a measure that was supported by Rep. Doug LaMalfa.
Some critics believe the SNA has been bulldozed by large companies that dominate the multibillion-dollar school food industry, and Republicans have been fighting the standards since 2012. Congress intervened last year to make pizza toppings count as a vegetable.
Whatever the outcome of the debate, this is a problem that has to be solved at home. Children become healthy eaters when their parents set good examples and introduce them to fruits and veggies at an early age. Even the busiest parents can get up 15 minutes earlier or watch less TV at night to do some advanced preparation of healthy meals.
While you’re at it, turn off the television and Xbox, and tell your children to go outside and play. Believe it or not, they are capable of getting healthy exercise without adult supervision or planned activities.
And when you attend the county fair in August, make sure your children are accompanied by a responsible adult when they visit Treat Street.
George Boardman, a member of The Union Editorial Board, lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays.