Summer break is approaching, but we can’t lose sight of what is happening in our public schools. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue recently rolled back a handful of crucial school lunch nutrition standards, reminding us that our kids’ health is up for debate over the next four years.
The case for these rollbacks is weak at best, as 99 percent of schools are already compliant with the nutrition standards. Perdue tried to justify the rollbacks by citing complaints about an unpalatable whole grain biscuit, which is like saying we should permit smoking indoors again because some were cold outside. Though the bulk of Obama-era nutrition standards are still in place, this change is an indication of what’s to come.
The rollbacks are particularly perplexing for two reasons. First, research released in March by the American Heart Association highlighted that a deficit of whole grains and an excess of salt are two of the largest contributors to premature cardiovascular death. Yet the rollbacks allow schools to ask for an exemption from the whole grain requirements and delay the sodium mandate. Why would we use tax dollars to fund known cardiovascular disease-promoting foods when this country’s healthcare system is already fraying at the edges?
Second, we know unhealthy diet is a major contributor to the obesity-diabetes epidemic. Physical activity, though important, is significantly outweighed by diet when it comes to fighting obesity. Yet physical activity has been used by big food, big soda, and now Secretary Perdue, as a red herring. His message about exercise promotion mirrors the debunked propaganda big soda promoted in hopes of keeping sugary beverages in the hands of kids.
Perdue positioned the rollbacks as a ‘deregulation’ to offer more freedom and flexibility to schools. However, seeing that most schools don’t have much of a problem with these standards that research continues to validate, it appears Perdue’s actions are merely big food putting its thumb on the scale behind a veil of deregulation—again.
It’s critical we stay vigilant and focus on promoting healthy eating habits, particularly when school meal standards are under attack. Sometimes school lunch is the closest thing to a balanced meal—or any meal for that matter—that some children eat each day. If we want to reverse the ‘diabesity’ epidemic in this country, we need to start with our youngest, and we need to start today. We owe it to them, as the ‘adults in the room,’ to support and promote what we know is best.
Rachna Govani is the CEO of Foodstand, a healthy eating behavior change program. Please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to bring Foodstand’s Healthy Eating Challenges to your school. Or download the Foodstand mobile app to join a Challenge with friends, family, and colleagues.