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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Public Voice Attacks the National School Lunch Program

The National School Lunch Program feeds about 27 million children. For the many poor among them, this is the only purportedly balanced meal they will have all day. But just how balanced are these meals which are supposed to provide one third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances for calories and essential nutrients.

Public Voice, a Washington-based consumer group, has issued a report charging that the National School Lunch Program has failed to follow the dietary recommendations of the Surgeon General and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Dietary Guidelines.

These Dietary Guidelines recommended principles for proper eating: (1) eat a variety of foods; (2) maintain desirable weight; (3) avoid too much fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol; (4) eat foods with adequate starch and fiber; (5) avoid too much sugar and sodium; and (6) if you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation.

In many schools, Public Voice found that the cafeteria panders to the children’s worst eating inclinations with a menu rich in saturated fats, simple sugars and salt. This is so partly because school personnel find it time-efficient to buy vendor-prepared foods that need little preparation but are high in fat, salt or sugar.

The USDA comes in for chastisement as well. Not only is the Department doing little to see that the Dietary Guidelines are being followed in the School Lunch Program, but it pushes free of charge surplus foods too often also high in fat, sugar and salt.

A recent study in the Journal of School Health found that the average school lunch provides more than double the amount of salt recommended by the Dietary Guidelines.

Then there are the price distortions. USDA charges schools for low-fat cheese, but gives high-fat cheese away for free. The milk producers’ lobby managed a federal requirement that stipulates that school serve whole milk with low-fat milk as optional.

There are some bright spots though. USDA specifications are placing more fruits and vegetables in the school programs.

The need for greater government focus on the nutritional health of school children is punctuated by the Surgeon General’s report earlier this year. Noting the growing problem of child obesity, the Surgeon General concluded there are too many empty calories being consumed by children that have few vitamins and minerals. That was his polite way of describing junk food.

He drew renewed attention to the connection to diseases of a diet high in calories, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium and low in complex carbohydrates and fiber.

Of course, a healthy nutritional diet produces not Just children less disposed to health problems, such as high bloodpressures, later in life, but also a higher level of energy in school classes.

Public Voice makes a number of recommendations for the USDA to follow including studying the feasibility of reinstituting the ban on junk foods on school grounds. The consumer group cites by name some school districts who do a better job in providing their children with healthful foods during their school lunch.

Interested readers may obtain a copy of this free report by writing to Public Voice, Suite 522, 1001 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20036.