Raise your hand if you remember Ronald Reagan trying to count ketchup as a vegetable.
(Ok, no, these guys weren’t alive back then. They’re just processed foods, only way cuter. And the two main reasons I get so angry about misguided food policy.)
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a refresher. In 1981, Congress cut $1 billion from child-nutrition funding. The USDA scrambled to figure out how to maintain some semblance of nutrition in school lunches. One idea floated was to count ketchup as “a fruit/vegetable when used as an ingredient.” Thankfully, the idea tanked.
This week, it was reincarnated, in pizza sauce form. Stuck in a joint House-Senate Department of Agriculture spending bill (which is attached to other agencies’ spending bills to make a ‘minibus’ bill, different from an ‘omnibus’ bill, of course. Though what Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation, and Housing have to do with each other I don’t exactly know, other than they’re all working under continuing resolutions because the fiscal year these bills are funding started almost two months ago, but I digress) was language blocking new standards in the National School Lunch Program. Standards that were developed in conjunction with nutritionists, doctors, and plain old common sense.
In case you’re a wonk like me, here’s the language from the proposed bill itself (on page 90 of the 401 page document):
Sec. 743. None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to implement an interim final or final rule regarding nutrition programs under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (42 U.S.C. 1751 et seq.) and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 (42 U.S.C. 1771 et seq.) that –
(1) requires crediting of tomato paste and puree based on volume;
(2) implements a sodium reduction target beyond Target I, the 2-year target, specified in Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, “Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs” (FNS-2007-0038, RIN 0584-AD59) until the Secretary certifies that the Department has reviewed and evaluated relevant scientific studies and data relevant to the relationship of sodium reductions to human health; and
(3) establishes any whole grain requirement without defining “whole grain.”
I know, that makes absolutely no sense. Guess what? I speak bureaucrat. Here’s my translation:
Sec. 743. USDA, you can’t use any of the money Congress is giving you for your FY 2012 budget to:
(1) make us count the volume of tomato paste we’re putting on something as just the volume served. We like counting the “whole-food equivalency” of a tomato and we’re sticking to that. It doesn’t matter that tomato paste is the only thing we count like this; currently “other fruit paste and purees…are credited based on actual volume as served.” Our friends the pizza lobbyists *really* didn’t like the sentence you put in at the end of that section: “Schools would not be allowed to credit a volume of fruit or vegetables that is more than the actual serving size.” They said to tell you that you suck.
(2) limit the sodium intake of an elementary school-age child to anything less than 540 mg/breakfast and 1,230 mg/lunch; a middle school-age child to anything less than 600 mg/breakfast and 1,360 mg/lunch; and a high school-age child to 640 mg/breakfast and 1,420 mg/lunch until we think you’ve looked at all the data we think is relevant. We’re purposely ignoring the fact that it’s ridiculously easy to find such studies on the internet, including this one on the same website as the report these standards are based on, because we don’t like what it says. And you know, we’re also ignoring data from past Surgeons General, too. What does C. Everett Koop know? It’s not like he has any medical training. His assertion that “1.1 to 3.3 grams [of sodium] per day [is] found to be as safe and adequate for adults by the National Research Council” is ri-gosh-darn-diculous. Never mind that just the lunch for a kindergartener has more than the minimum ‘safe’ level of daily sodium for an adult under these standards. I’m sticking my fingers in my ears.
(3) make anybody eat whole grains until you define whole grain to our satisfaction. Because the reference to “a minimum whole grain content of 51 percent” in your proposed rule and the definition of whole-grain in the Random House dictionary as “of or being natural or unprocessed grain containing the germ and bran” isn’t clear enough. That makes us think that at least 51% of the stuff we eat with grains in it has to have been minimally processed, keeping the germ and bran, and EVERYbody knows you can’t make ooey-gooey white bread with that crap. My friends at the American Frozen Food Institute told me so.
Holy cow. That took me several hours to untangle. And I know how to read this government-speak. You non-wonks don’t stand a chance in this field. Go back to eating your processed foods, fools.
…and that’s exactly what they want you to do. Don’t pay attention to the fact that the American Frozen Food Institute and the National Potato Council were the only food-related organizations that were happy about this language.
And if that hasn’t made your head spin enough already, here’s some language from the Senate’s deliberations on this bill on Halloween (my comments are conveniently in bold). No word if anyone dressed up as a ketchup bottle while talking about tomato paste.
From Senator Jerry Moran, R-KS (just as an example):
Furthermore, we must keep in mind the impact this rule will have on school budgets and food suppliers. Unfunded mandates such as this one will make it even harder for schools to provide healthy lunches for students. [Right, because properly funding nutritional programs in public schools so that all children have a relatively level nutritional playing field is a nasty socialist endeavor. And capitalism will keep us from falling behind China in educational achievement. Because it's worked so well so far.]
The Department of Agriculture estimates that the cost of compliance over a 5-year period will reach $6.8 billion. The Federal reimbursement already does not cover the full cost of preparing a meal in many schools across our country. This new USDA rule will further drive up the costs of providing lunches and school districts will have to make up the difference. This doesn’t seem like a reasonable approach when many school districts are already struggling to make ends meet. [Oh. My. God. That's an obscene amount of money to pull out of thin air. $6.8 billion for five years? How could you even ask for that volume of cash? Well, according to the Congressional Budget Office, that's about the amount of money that funded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for three weeks. If we can find money to fight two wars and mark our territory across a wide swath of Asia, why we can't find the cash to properly feed our kids?]
Let me give an example of what is in this rule. Once finalized, schools would be required to reduce sodium content in breakfasts by up to 27 percent and school lunches by up to 54 percent. There are a couple problems with this requirement. There is no suitable replacement for sodium that can maintain the same functions of flavor and texture. Also, reducing sodium is not just a function of limiting raw salt content. Many ingredients have sodium in them that occurs naturally. School food suppliers have been working for years to reduce the amount of sodium in their food products. However, they need additional time to come up with a solution that balances nutritional value with taste so kids will eat the school lunch. [Two things: 1) if this guy is genuinely worried about taste, he's never actually eaten a school lunch, and 2) if the school suppliers need more time to figure out the nutrition vs. taste debate, why haven't they been working on it for the eleven months since the proposed rule was published? That's a decent amount of time for the chem labs that simulate food taste to figure something out.]
This rule would also change how nutritional content is measured—rather than measure nutrition based on density, the Department of Agriculture rule proposes to measure nutritional content based on volume. For example, tomato paste is nutritionally dense, but the Department of Agriculture says it must meet the same volume as a fresh tomato. That doesn’t make much sense. Why would we take a metric to be the arbitrary volume requirement instead of just measuring the nutritional value? [I really just don't get this tomato problem. If I buy a six ounce can of tomato paste, it says six ounces on the label. Not ten tomatoes. Lots of things are nutritionally dense when you concentrate them. Why should tomatoes get special treatment?]
No wonder these guys are so easy to ridicule on late night tv.
Elsewhere on the internet, people have been quoted as saying that government shouldn’t be involved in telling kids how to eat. Free will is quintessentially American. Ok, so if that’s the case, my three year old shouldn’t be punished for raiding her brother’s Halloween stash under the dining room table before breakfast (which happened today, and being the ungodly commie pinko that I am, I stopped her). In case you haven’t noticed, kids don’t always make the smartest choices regarding food. And if they don’t have parents who know how to make smart choices about food, or have the money or the time to make good choices for them, where else can they learn how to develop smart eating habits *except* at school?
And riddle me this – if government shouldn’t be involved in telling kids how to eat, why did the American Frozen Food Institute spend $5 million to influence Congress on these rules? I would think that greasing the palms of your local elected official would get them to work for something in your favor, wouldn’t it? Sounds like those politicians who were swayed by lobbyists weren’t exactly exercising their free will, either. I know of no low-income kindergartener who could wield that kind of influence in the halls of Congress.
If this pisses you off, it should. Between processing the Penn State child sex abuse scandal so that I could talk to my son (the same age as the victims) coherently about the dangers of child predators, and hearing that people in Congress like their potatoes and sodium more than they like my kids’ unblocked arteries to stay that way, it’s been a hard week to be a parent. This further cements my position to not let my kids eat the school lunches until Jamie Oliver makes his way to every school district in the country.
Finally, consider this. The federal government created the National School Lunch Program because during the Depression, “[m]illions of school children were unable to pay for their school lunches, and with but limited family resources to provide meals at home, the danger of malnutrition among children became a national concern.” Today, one in four young adults is too overweight to join the military, which should also be a national concern. Not to mention the untold burden this public health crisis will put on future generations. But hey, those frozen pizza makers are job creators!