Congress Thwarts Plans for Healthier School Meals
By Eddie Gehman Kohan
In January of this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled its proposed rule for improved school nutrition standards, designed to create a sweeping change in the kind of foods allowed in America's lunchrooms. Championed by First Lady Michelle Obama as a pillar of the Let's Move! campaign, the rule offered the first real improvement in decades to the quality of meals that schools offer to millions of youngsters on a daily basis. But the proposal has come under fire since first unveiled, and late on Nov. 14, lawmakers certified their own distaste for the rule as they approved a final House-Senate compromise on a $182 billion appropriations bill that requires changes to the nutrition standards.
The FY 2012 bill is expected to be voted on separately in the House and Senate this week, and includes requirements for USDA to delay a proposed increase in the use of whole grains in school meals, and to delay proposed restrictions for sodium levels. It also allows unrestricted servings of potatoes and other starchy vegetables, such as corn and peas. USDA had proposed a limit of a one-cup serving per week. Tomato paste on pizza will also be allowed to be credited as a vegetable. That's currently the case, but USDA's proposal ended this practice.
According to the bill summary released Nov .14, school lunch and school breakfast programs will receive $18.2 billion in mandatory funding.* Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee said in a statement that the school meal provisions in the appropriations bill will "prevent overly burdensome and costly regulations," and "provide greater flexibility for local school districts to improve the nutritional quality of meals."
Without the provisions, the cost of school meal programs "would balloon by an additional $7 billion over the next five years—leaving states and local school districts in the lurch," according to the Republicans.
USDA's final nutrition rule was expected to be released next month, and would have gone into effect for the school year beginning in Fall of 2012. The proposed rule is based on a 2009 report from the federal Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences. Both Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack have hailed the rule as crucial to combating childhood obesity, arguing that many children get up to half their daily calories in school. More than 32 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program, and 11 million are enrolled in the National School Breakfast Program. The administration says one in three children is overweight or obese.
School Meals—Profit & PR Campaigns
School meals are a high-profit market for major food corporations. Despite Mrs. Obama's efforts to encourage direct farm-to-table sourcing for cafeteria offerings, big corporations provide millions of daily meals to America's schools. Thus in the last year, powerful food companies, agriculture lobbies and various coalitions of lawmakers have allied in battles over each food area that USDA sought to restrict. This has included the creation of slick PR campaigns.
For instance, ConAgra and the giant, privately held Schwans, which sell millions of processed school meals, including pizza, have funded the Coalition for Sustainable School Meal Programs, which includes a website with a campaign called Fix the Reg, asking parents and other interested parties to contact USDA and lawmakers to demand changes to the school nutrition rule. This group was especially interested in keeping USDA's current designation of tomato paste as a "vegetable" intact, something many nutritionists have argued makes poor sense.
In the potato and starchy-vegetable battle, potato-state lawmakers, led by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and The National Potato Council, joined together to create a high-profile PR campaign, which called on Congress to allow schools to serve as many servings of potatoes and starchy vegetables as they deem appropriate. It also included a website and a phone/e-mail campaign aimed at lawmakers. This was very successful. In October, when the Senate released its version of the appropriations bill, lawmakers voted to block the potato and starchy vegetable limit.
In its June version of the spending bill, House Republicans called on USDA to go back to the drawing board and completely re-write the proposed school nutrition rule.
During the public comment period for USDA's proposed rule, the agency received more than 130,00 comments, spokesman Courtney Rowe told Obama Foodorama. These were still being analyzed in October, she said. But the comments included requests for changes or delays to the USDA's proposal from entire school districts, as well as from the School Nutrition Association, the largest U.S. organization that represents school cafeteria professionals.
The House-Senate bill approved on Monday funds Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.
*The full funding from the bill for nutrition: Mandatory food and nutrition programs within the Department of Agriculture—including SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) and child nutrition—are funded at $98.6 billion—$2 billion less than the president’s request based on the administration’s Mid-Session Review. "This funding will allow all individuals and families who meet the programs’ criteria for aid to receive all the benefits available to them, and includes $3 billion in reserve funds in case of unanticipated increases in participation or food price increases," according to the summary.
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Where Does the Deficiency Begin?<p>Nobody knows exactly how much vitamin D a person actually needs. The question of when a deficiency starts is correspondingly controversial. However, vitamin D is becoming increasingly popular.Not only is the pseudo-scientific literature on the "sun vitamin" experiencing an upswing, but the number of published studies has also increased enormously in recent years. For example, in 2019 <a href="https://academic.oup.com/edrv/article/40/4/1109/5126915" target="_blank">a study found that</a> Vitamin D is responsible for keeping the skeleton functional and is associated with cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and various types of cancer. <br></p>
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Association Versus Intervention Studies<p>Many studies on the vitamin are association or observational studies. "By definition, these studies cannot prove the causal relationship, but only point to mere correlations," said Fassnacht. The physician tries to illustrate this with an example:</p><p>"Imagine two groups of 80-year-olds. One group is spry, active and does sports. If you compare them with another group living in nursing homes, the difference in vitamin D levels will be dramatic. Life expectancy would also be extremely different."</p><p>But to try to explain the difference in fitness by vitamin D status alone is far too simplistic. "Vitamin D levels are a good measure of how sick someone is. But not more," says Fassnacht. </p><p>According to Fassnacht, none of the intervention studies carried out to date -- that specifically examined the effect of vitamin D on various diseases -- has been able to confirm the previous association and laboratory studies or the presumed positive effect of vitamin D.</p>
Further Research Is Needed<p>"If a coronavirus infection is suspected, it is therefore absolutely necessary to check the vitamin D status and quickly correct any possible deficit," said the recommendation of the paper published by the University of Hohenheim.</p><p>"Studies are underway to see whether vitamin D helps in COVID-19 infection, but I personally do not believe that this is really the case," says endocrinologist Fassnacht. Nevertheless, he says it is of course useful to carry out these studies.<br></p><p>"I don't want to rule out that there are actually subgroups of people who benefit from an additional vitamin D dose," he says. After all, this has been proven to be the case with a severe deficit.</p><p>In view of the study situation, Fassnacht does not think much of preventive, nationwide vitamin D substitutes. "My belief that the vitamin helps somewhere is very low. But, of course, I can be wrong."</p>
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