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Best Interests of the Child?

October 26, 2010

In divorce proceedings and child custody cases, “the best interests of the child” doctrine is at the center of courts’ decision-making process. For example, who shall be granted legal custody? With whom will the child live? Will grandparents have visitation rights? To answer these questions courts greatly focus on the child’s best interest, at times even at the cost of what a parent wants.

Similarly, when determining what to serve for school lunch, the best interests of the child should be controlling. Unfortunately, as evidenced by the prevalence of processed foods, preservatives, artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners in public school meals, this is not the case.

The statistics on childhood obesity is sobering. One third of all children are overweight or obese in the United States. In New York City, less-affluent neighborhoods, like Corona, Harlem, and Washington Heights, have outstanding rates of school children who are overweight or obese at 51%, 48-49%, and 47% respectively.

One strategy to improve children’s health is to focus on public school lunch since all children must attend school. I recently met with Chef Kate Adamick, a school food reform activist and food systems consultant, to discuss school lunches. I asked her what she thought was the biggest problem. I expected her to answer the need for healthy food preparation instruction for cafeteria workers, or better facilities in which to cook, or perhaps eliminating chocolate milk from schools (flavored milk being “soda in drag” as renegade lunch lady Chef Ann Cooper calls it since there is a comparable amount of sugar in chocolate milk as there is in Classic Coke). Even though those are all issues we need to address, Chef Kate responded that without a doubt the biggest problem is that the USDA regulates the school food program.

While the Department of Agriculture’s stated mission is to “provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management,” Chef Kate argues that the USDA’s main agenda is to support agriculture, and today that means industrial agriculture. After all, at a time when the majority of Americans were farmers, Abraham Lincoln created the USDA to help stabilize and strengthen the US economy. Once the US moved from an agrarian society to an industrial one, the USDA’s interests shifted from protecting the small farmer to safeguarding corporate interests. In some cases, USDA officials and food company executives have such close relationships that “they switch roles over time.” Marion Nestle, in her book Food Politics, documents the food industry’s influence over nutrition and health.

Indeed how ironic that an entity whose main interests are to produce and sell food would be in charge of overseeing the school lunch program. Obviously, the more food children eat the more profit the food industry makes. Not only that, but the more children eat now the more corporations will make down the road since overweight children are more likely to become overweight adults.

Chef Kate also discussed the USDA’s influence over how schools prepare their meals. Schools that choose to take part in the lunch program “get cash subsidies and donated commodities from the [USDA] for each meal they serve.” Instead of cooking onsite, most schools direct divert, meaning that they opt for rerouting their raw commodities to a plant for processing.

Schools direct divert for three main reasons. First, school meals decision makers are under the impression that because children favor processed foods, they will not eat whole foods. Second, training cafeteria workers to cook healthy foods in bulk and buying adequate cooking appliances are cost prohibitive. Lastly, the USDA encourages schools to process their raw commodities because it claims it is cheaper and safer to eat since food borne illnesses are less likely to occur in processing plants than in the school kitchens.

I was really surprised by what Chef Kate was explaining. Will children go hungry without processed foods? How economically feasible is it to train cooking staff? How can adding an intermediary between a raw product and a finished product be more economical? Are processed foods safer? She answered that of course children prefer apple pies to apples, but should we feed them pie to get them to eat the apples? A close examination of lunchroom efficiency and funds saved from not direct diverting can be used for staff training and other costs. While it is true that purchasing nuggets through direct diversion is cheaper than buying them in the open market, we should not be serving them to children in the first place. And lastly, properly trained staff can handle and store food properly, just as people do at home. Chef Kate argues that schools are so focused on food-borne illnesses that they forget to consider diet related illnesses.

I am confident that an unbiased cost-benefit analysis would reveal what Chef Kate already knows—that even if the costs of cooking raw commodities instead of processing them were more expensive, the benefits of reducing the rates of overweight and obese children will outweigh those costs. Some benefits include improved health and quality of life, reduced medical expenditures, reduced school absences due to illness, and increased academic performances. The benefits of healthier cafeteria food have already been documented. A study of Jamie Oliver Feed Me Better—a campaign to improve school meals in the UK by shifting away from processed foods and towards healthier foods—found that students had improved English and science scores and a significant reduction in absenteeism which were “likely to be due to sickness, and therefore health.”

Chef Kate is right. It is inconceivable that we would allow the USDA, with its clear corporate biases, to regulate what children eat. We should advocate for an independent regulatory body to regulate school food, one that is comprised of nutritionists, chefs, economists and those who will put the best interests of the child above all else.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2010 12:58 pm

    GREAT article, I couldn’t agree more! Schools are caught in the middle of trying to comply with the hypocritical USDA guidelines, while still trying to keep their budget in the black. As i see in my job working as a nutritionist in a community health center, kids are the ones who ultimately suffer.

  2. November 1, 2010 3:03 pm

    Here’s some more info on the USDA and how their regulation of school food negatively impacts students and school districts. It was written a few years ago so some of the figures are no longer current (a free school lunch is now reimbursed at $2.72, up from $2.49 a few years ago) but the rest of it is still as true as the day it was written.

    The 10 Dumbest Things about the National School Lunch Program
    http://tinyurl.com/2b5o4ad

    and if you enjoyed that, try this:

    USDA needs a taste of reality about school lunches
    http://tinyurl.com/36sk286

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