This is no time for a food fight

Raise your hand if you remember when Congress debated making ketchup a vegetable.

Many people remember the absurdity, even as they’ve forgotten the context. In 1981 — back when I was just another kid in the school lunch line — Congress hoped to take a ride on President Ronald Reagan’s spending-cut coattails by demanding the USDA cut $1 billion from child nutrition programs. But proposed legislation neglected to specify what should be slashed.

School lunches were then mandated to have a meat, a grain, a dairy and two servings of fruits or vegetables. USDA officials told Congress they could make the cuts and still meet the requirements if pickle relish and ketchup could be reclassified as vegetables.

You’d think after the subsequent backlash that Congress would have learned Americans want children to be fed. Not so much.

About 15 years later, during the 1995 Contract With America, Congress again took aim at child nutrition programs, suggesting moving them into a block grant with a paltry annual increase. This time a report by the Congressional Budget Office proving the rate of increase wouldn’t keep up with demand ended the proposal. A New York Times editorial labeled the dispute as “the Return of Ketchup.”

Between then and now, the school lunch program has undergone significant changes. Full trash cans from the age of mystery meat and succotash surprise, gave way to the era of french fries and vending machines. Hamburger Tuesdays became hamburgers every day, with a salty snack on the side, washed down with a sugary can of soda.

Fortunately, we soon realized the extended harm of high-calorie, high-fat eating.

Obesity, which is caused mostly by poor diets, costs the nation nearly $200 billion each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity has doubled in children and tripled in adolescents over the past 30 years.

We can do better, and we have. Congress has approved calorie-appropriate, low-fat school lunch menus. Students learn portion control, and are often provided fresh foods from local providers. It isn’t perfect — some who have forgotten the age of succotash lament the amount of food being discarded — but it’s a move in the right direction, one that Congress should expand instead of dismantle.

A U.S. Senate committee approved a compromise on government nutrition rules. Overall standards remain, but requirements for whole grains are lessened. A deadline to cut sodium levels in school lunches is extended. Schools that cannot meet requirements for fresh fruits and vegetables will have the option of a waiver.

Even so, the bill is expected to draw the ire of House Republicans, many of whom have said schools should set their own nutrition standards.

Last Sunday I advocated for K-12 students to receive nutritious school meals as part of their public education. Research has shown hungry kids aren’t focusing on academics, and that long-term malnutrition leads to physical and mental developmental delays.

Ending the school lunch status quo would reduce bureaucracy, and end the stigma of eating subsidized meals. No child should be or go hungry.

This blog post by Lynda Waddington originally published on The Gazette website on February 27, 2016.