The recent announcement by USDA that the agency is relaxing (for now) its new limits on meat and grains has garnered mixed reactions from advocates. Some such as Bettina Siegel say the flexibility is needed while others such as Marion Nestle are calling out the politics. I asked Amie Hamlin, executive director of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, for her reaction. Hamlin’s group has been pushing for more plant-based options in New York schools for years and knows the issues well. – MS
The purpose of the new meal regulations was to address childhood obesity and diet related diseases. As a result the meal guidelines were brought into better compliance with the US Dietary Guidelines. The maximum calories per school meal established for the new regulations was still higher than the average calories eaten per school meal in the past, so the claim that students were starving is a sham.
Yet after the YouTube video called “We are Hungry” came out, there was a media frenzy and the video went viral, as did media articles about it. The claim was that the video was created by some high school students and their teachers. That seems highly unlikely. Anyone who knows anything about video production can see that professional production and directing services were deployed.
In the very first scene (and throughout) a high school student wears an “I Love Beef” t-shirt — not too subtle. In the end, a student is taken away in an ambulance, with his body falling out of the back as it drives away from the school – a very dangerous stunt, one that I am shocked a school or an ambulance company would allow to take place. I see this as a gross abuse of the students, school resources, and the ambulance company.*
The reality is that the amount of grains has decreased slightly, and the amount of meat has remained about the same (two ounces less per week at most for high school students only; the amount allowed previously was a range). It’s well known that children will fill up on starchy carbohydrates and the protein component and leave the vegetables on their plate. But when they are hungry, they will eat more fruits and vegetables. By reducing slightly the amount of grains and meat for high school students, it’s more likely they will eat more of the nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits – if they are hungry.
The amount of fruits and vegetables has almost doubled, so there is no calorie deficit from what there was before. It may be true that students who don’t want to eat all those fruits and vegetables will have less food, but resistance is a normal reaction to change, and eventually students do, and have adjusted. Instead, we have essentially said: “OK, you don’t like healthy food, we’ll give you more unhealthy food instead since that’s what you really want.” By unhealthy food I mean meat and refined grains; this year schools only need 26% of grains to be whole – and don’t be confused by “whole grain rich” language.
Also, the easing up on maximum grain and meat is supposedly only while schools adjust. What’s next? When they go back to the original or some modified rule, the same people will complain again – and that is the work of the food industry lobby. Indeed, the same legislators who requested the relaxed rule are already asking for the changes to become permanent. More whole grains, without preservatives and other additives would not be a problem. But the research is very clear that meat is a major contributor to disease and poor health, and the whole purpose of having healthier meals is to reverse this trend.
*The “We are Hungry” video links to a Facebook page called “Nutrition Nannies” hosted by two GOP members of Congress: Rep. King of Iowa and Rep. Huelskamp of Kansas.