School lunch politics will play out again on Capitol Hill this year as lawmakers consider a bill to reauthorize the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was championed by the American Heart Association, which has repeatedly implored Congress to protect the new law from changes that could pose both short- and longer-term risks to children’s health.
Special interests started chipping away at the healthy foods initiative shortly after the bill was signed. Less than a year after, Congress made it law that pizza got to count as a serving of vegetables because of the tomato sauce.
Further efforts to dismantle the law came through the omnibus funding bill last December. As part of that funding legislation, Congress rolled back the whole grain standards, and also decided there wasn’t enough evidence that sodium needed to be reduced in school foods.
That runs counter to studies that have repeatedly shown that cutting salt, fat and sugar in school lunches, while dishing up more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, can help decrease children’s risks for obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes.
One in three American kids and teenagers are either overweight or obese, and children between ages 8 and 18 eat more than double the recommended daily amount of sodium. The AHA recommends eating fewer than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day.
“Americans get more than three-quarters of their sodium from processed foods. It’s not just the salt shaker at the table,” said registered dietitian Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., an AHA volunteer and professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont in Burlington. “By rolling back sodium requirements in school meals, we lose any incentives for the food manufacturers to cut back sodium in the processed foods served to kids, such as the local company that makes pizza sold in schools.”
Research has shown developing unhealthy eating habits early on can put kids on a path to heart disease and stroke later in adulthood. Excessive salt intake, in particular, is directly linked to high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, the No. 1 and No. 5 causes of death in the United States.
“Delaying or even abolishing these standards puts our children’s health in jeopardy and sets them on an early path to heart disease, stroke, disability and early death,” AHA CEO Nancy Brown wrote last May in a letter to Congress about nutrition standards.
The federal school lunch program, overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, feeds about 31 million kids nationwide at 100,000 public and private schools as well as day care facilities.
More than 90 percent of schools now meet the updated nutrition standards, according to the USDA. That makes public health experts question the reasoning behind attempts to weaken the standards.
“Some schools have been able to comply with the new regulations,” Johnson said “We need to help our children develop a palate for foods that aren’t so salty. We need partnership with the food industry to get the sodium lowered.”
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