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.