Opinion | Michigan should fight weakening of federal school lunch standards

Anne Kittendorf

Anne Kittendorf is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan Department of Family Medicine.

As a doctor, I want healthier patients.

As a parent, I hope schools will care for my children.

As a taxpayer, I don’t want my dollars spent on programs that escalate costs while threatening national security.

Nutritious school lunches can help meet all of these goals, but unfortunately, recently loosened nutritional standards for school meals are a step backward.

Eating healthy can be simple - by increasing daily fruit, vegetable, and fiber intake and lowering sodium and sugar intake, incidences of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes can be dramatically reduced. But every day as a primary-care doctor, I hear how busy families find healthy eating difficult, sometimes because they cannot access or afford healthy foods. Because nearly half of a child’s calorie intake happens in school, nutritious school meals help families.

Childhood obesity is a major health concern in Michigan, with 17 percent of children aged 10-17 considered obese. In my clinic, I have unfortunately seen increases in diseases like hypertension and Type 2 diabetes in children. These historically adult-onset conditions can be prevented with a healthy diet.

Meanwhile, only 7 percent of children eat enough vegetables, and 90 percent aren’t reaching fiber or sodium recommendations. The National School Lunch Program was overhauled in 2010 to help improve our children’s health by using the most up-to-date nutritional science. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has recently ignored science by lowering the nutrition standards for school meals — decreasing the amount of whole grains and allowing for flavored low-fat milk, while delaying regulations that lower sodium.  

These lower standards harm our children, and health organizations such as the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics oppose them. Obesity and poor diet can worsen mental health for children, including anxiety and depression, and can decrease school performance

Furthermore, because weight is the most common reason for military ineligibility, poor diet harms our national security. And because overweight and obese children are more likely to become obese adults with preventable illnesses, poor nutrition in childhood increases costs for all of us.

 Is this really what we want for our children? 

Why would the USDA put our children at risk? The USDA claims that the 2010 standards led to meals with less flavor and more waste. In contrast, studies have shown the 2010 standards resulted in decreases in food waste and increases in nutritious food intake. The USDA also claims that schools have difficulty with the improved standards. But more than 90 percent of schools are meeting the 2010 goals, and there are waiver programs if schools do have difficulty. 

Michigan is the second most agriculturally diverse state, and we can use our ingenuity to deliver school lunches that exceed these scaled-back nutritional standards. By expanding current programs that promote locally grown fruits, vegetables and legumes in schools, we can improve our health and provide local economic benefits. 

What can Michiganders do? Contact your local school administration and encourage them to continue serving school meals that meet the 2010 nutrition standards. You can also contact your state legislators and let them know that healthy food for our children is a priority. Furthermore, our state should consider joining a multistate lawsuit against the USDA.  Our children are counting on us.

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Mon, 09/23/2019 - 10:09am

I do not believe it is the governments role to be the parent. I would agree schools should be teaching nutrition as a required subject. Many studies showed the school lunches were not being eaten. We should be welcoming less government.

Tue, 09/24/2019 - 10:33am

I was an elementary school custodian for 34 yrs. As school lunches got "healthier" I saw a drastic increase in children getting their lunches and walking directly to the trash bins and dumping them. The waste was incredible! Can't say I blamed them though as it tasted terrible. Perhaps these experts should step outside their university offices and spend some time in schools talking to students and staff to see what's really going on.

Tue, 09/24/2019 - 9:08am

Have you seen school lunches by chance? Healthy? In what way? Most of the food comes frozen which means it's packed with preservatives. Kids used to be able to choose between hot lunch, cold lunch and the salad bar. Now the salad bar is only an option for high school students. The meat is discolored when cooked. Would you eat a grey hotdog? I would not. I refuse to force my children to eat it. It's not the school's responsibility for children being overweight. That is the responsibility of parents to provide healthy meals and get their children up and moving away from the XBox. The school food is so awful that my children were skipping meals altogether and waiting until they got home to eat. How is not eating healthy? It isn't. Get your children up and moving and make the best effort possible to buy healthy food as much as possible (this isn't found at McDonald's by the way).

Debra S Foster
Tue, 09/24/2019 - 4:50pm

Very simple. This should be the responsibility of the state. Unfortunately we have a Governor who would rather have everything under the Federal umbrella. Smaller government means the constituents have more say in the governance of their home.

middle of the mit
Tue, 09/24/2019 - 9:47pm

From the comment above, I think I am about ready to just say no more public funding for schools. That mean no vouchers!

People are complaining about the Feds being involved in the school lunch program, yet they don't understand the feds got involved because during WWII most of the draftees were undernourished and couldn't be draftees.

And yes, unlike Republicans...I have to provide proof.



{But the school lunch program was not a permanent mandate. When food supplies dwindled and labor became scarce during World War II, the number of school meals served declined precipitously. Recognizing the benefits of keeping children well fed and healthy, in 1946 Congress passed the National School Lunch Act:

It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the States, through grant-in-aid and other means, in providing an adequate supply of food and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, operation, and expansion of nonprofit school lunch programs.

In the decades after, the programs expanded to feed more children in more ways. Eisenhower and Nixon both increased the budgets for school lunch programs while the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 added more subsidies for low-income children, as well as school milk and school breakfast programs.

Things changed when Ronald Reagan took office.}

Yeah, that's when I was growing up. Ketchup became a vegetable. Pizza day, or grease day? I am not kidding! Some of us would go through a good two thick handfulls of napkins soaked in grease before we would eat it. And now your worried or apparently not that kids are unhealthy because most of America hasn't seen the trickle down? Isn't that what Trump is supposed to be addressing? The loss of American jobs and wages?

Those same industries sold you out, to China, for low wages. #ChinaTradeWar

I would complain more, but Republicans, they really don't care