On January 25th, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an infuriating editorial entitled Lighten Up: Getting students to eat healthy requires flexibility – see left. My letter to the editor submission is below.  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has yet to respond to me, so I decided to self-publish.  Thanks for reading.

Dear Editorial Board:

I agree that the Senate should approve the Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016 because it upholds most of the standards set forth in the Healthy-Hunger Free Kids Act (2010) and improves children’s access to needed food.  But mostly I support it because after meeting with senators in DC this past November to push for improvements in school lunch nutrition it became apparent that due to strong food lobbies, this is the best we were going to get.  However, the Post-Gazette editorial from January 25th, 2016 entitled Lighten up: Getting students to eat healthy requires flexibility was truly upsetting in both its incorrect assertions and its blasé tone.

Post-Gazette Editorial Board’s Assertion #1 “The challenge for the nation’s school lunch program is not unlike that of the parent of a picky eater: Creating a healthy, balanced meal is just half the trick. The other is getting the child to eat it.”

It’s a catchy argument (one that the perplexingly named lobby group School Nutrition Association attempted as well) and one that I’m sure they hope would resonate with parents.  But any parent knows that schools have the advantage of peer pressure.  Early on in your child’s life you observe them reacting to peer pressure and you also witness teachers intelligently accessing this peer pressure to manipulate a large group of children.  It’s not a magic flute that’s getting all those two year olds to nap at the same time.  It’s herd mentality.

Schools can tap into that herd mentality when it comes to food as well.  If all the 5 year olds have the same lunch in front of them they’re going to eat it.   Yes, maybe the teenagers are rejecting some of the changes, but that is only because they have been trained to expect different food for lunch since they were 5.  Implementation of the standards that began phasing in in 2012 is going to have a few growing pains, especially with the older students, but 9 years from now we will have a youth population accustomed to eating healthier food (and much healthier for it).

Introducing healthy foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains to children through the school lunch program has long term benefits.  Large food manufacturers understand that the school lunch program provides them a captive audience of 30 million children (i.e. consumers) at their most impressionable age.  The food manufacturers take advantage of it to set the children’s food habits for the rest of their lives, creating the consumers they want.

Why are the American people not the ones taking advantage of this opportunity?  Let the Federal Government (with its access to the most knowledgeable nutritionists and doctors) take advantage of the captive, impressionable audience created by the school lunch program to really nourish our children and teach them the good food habits they will keep for the rest of their lives.

Editorial Board Assertion #2: “the U.S. Agriculture Department’s ambitions — which the Post-Gazette supported — were bigger than the children’s stomachs. It turned out that too many of them were being put off by the new menu and were throwing away too much food.”
Absolutely false.   The accounts of food waste were at best anecdotal.  There were two studies to check the effects of the HHFKA 2012 implementation on food waste, one by Harvard School of Public Health and one by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut.  Both studies showed a decrease in the amount of food kids were throwing away.  And more good news: both showed an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption.

Editorial Board Assertion #3 The roll backs of the whole grain and sodium requirements set forth in 2012 were reasonable to make the food more palatable.

According to the Editorial Board  “the department would rewrite the rules so whole grains could make up 80 percent of the lunch line instead of the current 100 percent.” If that were true it would be understandable.  No one would expect kids to eat 100% whole grains.  However, like most of the Post-Gazette editorial it’s not true.  Instead: The current standards require not 100% whole grain but 100% “Whole grain rich” which is defined in the USDA Whole Grain Resource for the National School Lunch Program as 50% whole grain by weight plus up to 50% enriched white flour.   So the requirements were already only 50% whole grain, probably palatable for any kid.

Additionally, the delay on the scheduled reduction of sodium is not so the food will taste better (which as a chef and lover of salt I’d probably agree with).  The sodium levels are being maintained so more processed food can be served to our children.  Processed foods with high levels of sodium for preservation purposes, not NaCl for taste.  With 17% of children exhibiting elevated blood pressure (according to the CDC) these are not the levels we need to be maintaining.

So while the Post–Gazette might enjoy a jovial take on the ongoing fight for our children’s nutrition, I would strongly suggest they take a more studious approach next time when dealing with an issue that sadly points to a crisis of priorities.  Perhaps next time an editorial entitled Wise Up: Even with our children’s health, special interests take precedence.