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Improving School Food: Do It Now or Pay the Price Later

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Last week (May 30), the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee voted to cripple the nation’s budding effort to do something about the woeful quality of school food and make America’s kids healthier.

Ignoring the recent bi-partisan mandate to develop new science-based, healthy food standards under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the committee’s bill directs the US Department of Agriculture to ensure that its proposed school food standards will not increase costs to schools.

That would effectively squash the drive to make school food better.

The pending USDA rule to update 15-year old standards, which has generated more than 100,000 supportive public comments, would require schools to cut sodium and fat, provide more whole grains and double the amount fruits and vegetables in the meals they feed to more than 32 million kids every day. Many Republicans say we just can’t afford it—and want to roll back a long-overdue process.

The “increased costs of complying with the proposed rule will be overly burdensome and difficult to manage,” Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) wrote recently to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, urging that USDA’s pending standards be rewritten. Kline is chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee.

There is no escaping the fact that serving healthier foods will cost money – at least in the short run – especially for the majority of schools that don’t have the necessary infrastructure, purchasing systems and staffing in place.

But Kline is wrong.

What we can’t afford is the ever-mounting cost of continuing to feed our children the same unhealthy, fattening and disease-causing food. School meals – often high in fat, sodium and refined sugars and skimpy on fresh fruits and vegetables – are contributing to soaring childhood diabetes and obesity rates, impeding kids’ ability to learn and costing the nation billions of dollars in current and future health care costs.

A report last year by the Produce for Better Health Foundation, based mostly on federal data, calculated that the diet-related medical costs of just four serious illnesses – diabetes, cancer, coronary heart disease and stroke – amount to $38 billion a year. Obesity pushes the figure close to the $150 billion mark.

There is substantial other evidence that people whose diets are rich in fruits and vegetables are far less likely to suffer from these health problems, yet less than 1 percent of adolescents get their recommended servings of these healthy foods. With many children consuming as much as half their daily calories at school, strengthening school nutritional standards is the surest way to reduce future health care costs.

This is not “nanny state overreach.” Besides the health benefits, better school food results in better student learning and behavior and greater fitness. A 2007 Department of Defense report found that 25 percent of the applicants rejected for military service were turned down because they were too fat. Twenty-five percent!

In the current ideologically driven budget-cutting mania, however, there seems to be no room  for rational debate about what programs are worth cutting, protecting or even increasing, based on hard data, future benefits and return on investment.

Healthy food investments will pay off

Yes, implementing new school food standards will come at a cost, but some schools are showing they can serve healthier food on limited budgets – and in some cases even reporting higher profits as a result of increased demand for better tasting food.

USDA projects that implementing its proposed draft standards would cost nearly $7 billion. To cover just a small portion of that cost, the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act authorized spending an additional six cents per meal.

But even if it’s possible to meet the new standards at lower cost, which some say is the case, the broader questions are:

  • Despite the difficult fiscal times we’re in, do we really want to rule out spending any new money on healthier food for kids, knowing that it will deliver financial and health dividends in the future?
  • Are we willing to have a national conversation about the merits of investing our future? And if we do make an investment, what programs – or “offsets” – should be cut to pay for it?

As the budget process moves to the Senate, lawmakers must do two things:

  1. Reaffirm the Act’s forward-thinking school food policies and strongly back USDA’s attempts to write science-based school food standards.
  2. Negotiate common sense agreements to slash spending on wasteful programs that yield few public benefits while protecting and even increasing spending that delivers myriad societal benefits and future cost savings.

In an earlier post, we showed how just 2 percent of the cotton subsidies spent in California ($75 million) could pay for doubling the quantity of fruits and vegetables in California schools, with great benefit for kids’ health and farmers’ bottom lines. These upland cotton subsidies, which totaled $200 million in 2009, generated a return of only $85 million in cotton sales for the state. That’s a loss to taxpayers of nearly 60 cents for each dollar spent. In contrast, an Oregon study found that every dollar spent on buying local food for school meals generated $1.87 in new economic activity.

As these examples make clear, there are indeed sensible offsets to pay for better school food – if reason and common sense can trump the influence and money that dictates decision-making in Washington. Simple request, right?

As the Senate works to resolve big-picture deficit reduction issues and considers changes to the 2012 Food and Farm Bill, it must not just slash and burn valuable programs. Senators must rethink policy priorities so that our investments are better aligned with the country’s long-term needs, especially in the nutritional guidelines that will pay off in better health for America’s kids for years to come.

Shifting policies and funding priorities

It won’t solve all the nation’s food-related health problems, but we can boost access to and affordability of healthy foods at school and at home simply by shifting a portion of the public investment in the 2012 Food and Farm Bill away from supporting the raw commodities that yield cheap processed foods (think: corn, soy) and into growing fruits, nuts and vegetables and building the local infrastructure to process and distribute them.

With the slash-and-burn approach to balancing the budget gaining momentum, it is crystal clear that it will take concerted action by of millions of concerned citizens to push members of Congress to craft a smarter, forward-thinking food system. Unless your voice is heard, how will your representative know what policies you believe in?

You can take the first step right now and let Congress know that investing in smarter food and farm policies that promote a cleaner environment and healthier diets for kids is a priority for you, because it offers better health and lower costs over the long term.

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