After school meal programKids at an after-school program in Washington, D.C.Photo: Mark Fenton/Bread for the WorldDo all children deserve the chance to eat real food at school? Or is processed junk food good enough for those whose parents can’t afford to pack their lunch?

That’s the central question in the school-food debate. And judging from the proposed new guidelines [PDF] that the USDA has finally issued for the federally-subsidized school meals program, the answer is a depressing one.

The proposed guidelines are little changed from recommendations made by a panel of prominent nutritionists for the Institute of Medicine in October 2009, representing the first update to the guidelines since 1995. The USDA was under congressional orders to bring school meal standards into line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The standards are supposed to be updated every five years, so these have been a long time in the making — much longer than Michelle Obama has been waging her “Let’s Move” campaign to fight childhood obesity.

The IOM recommendations should make it somewhat easier for the nation’s lunch ladies to serve healthful meals: they lowered the calorie requirements at breakfast and lunch, increased the total amount of allowable fat, and cut back on starchy foods such as potatoes and corn that have been implicated in “metabolic syndrome,” a constellation of diet-related health problems including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and coronary artery disease.

But the IOM, and the USDA, chose not to regulate the most dangerous ingredient of all: sugar.

In a major concession to the dairy industry, the USDA will continue to allow flavored milk in the nation’s public schools, although chocolate milk will have to be fat-free. In the government’s warped logic, this will bring down the total calorie count of a carton of chocolate (or strawberry, or grape, or root-beer-flavored) milk. But it does nothing to address the metabolic issues of sugar, which some experts have dubbed an “anti-nutrient” because of all the health problems it causes, such as the aforementioned “metabolic syndrome” and an unprecedented outbreak of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in children.

Kids overwhelmingly choose flavored milk over plain, making it one of the few bright spots in the milk sales landscape, which otherwise has seen milk sales plummet over the years as kids embraced sugary soda and sports drinks. Dairy interests are vigorously promoting flavored milk in schools through their “Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk!” campaign, endorsed also by the School Nutrition Association, representing some 53,000 of the nation’s school food service workers. An eight-ounce carton of strawberry milk contains nearly as much sugar, ounce-for-ounce, as Mountain Dew.

But now we get to the issue of whether good school food can really be legislated from Washington. The proposed meal standards, while calling for fewer potatoes, would require more servings of green and orange vegetables and whole grain products. These, of course, are adult ideas of what constitutes “healthy” food. In reality, kids adore potatoes of any kind — it’s their second-favorite food in the school meal line after pizza — and corn also ranks high on that list. Vegetables and whole grains are their least-favorite foods.

Since I visit the cafeteria in my daughter’s school on a daily basis, I can also add that school kitchens have a hard time preparing vegetables that are anywhere near palatable. Would you eat cooked-to-death broccoli? Well, neither will kids. Cooking vegetables on a large scale is extremely difficult. Consequently, most of the vegetables that are served at my daughter’s school simply get dumped in the trash. And that has been a problem the USDA has documented in schools nationwide for years.

As for “whole grain,” this really depends on what your definition is. Most of the whole-grain products we see on kids cafeteria trays consist of hamburger buns or dinner rolls that are merely formulated with some whole grain in them to meet the government standard. They are still loaded with refined grain that once again is implicated in that “metabolic syndrome.”

Bringing school meal regulations more in line with Dietary Guidelines for Americans does represent something of a breakthrough. The guideline for fat content in school meals has been kept artificially low at no more than 30 percent of calories, compared to 35 percent for the general population. As a result, cash-strapped schools use sugar as a cheap substitute for real food to bring the calorie count in meals up to USDA standards. Now the required calorie count would be reduced as well. The new guidelines for the first time set a minimum and a maximum calorie requirement, adjusted for children of different ages.

Along with those added vegetables and whole grains, the IOM panel figured sugar would be squeezed off school menus — with the exception of flavored milk, for which they made special allowances.

What we’ll probably see as a result of the new guidelines is food manufacturers reformulating their products or perhaps creating new ones. Most schools don’t serve fresh foods, but rather meals made from highly processed components that arrive frozen from manufacturers around the country, who frequently make their products specifically to conform with school meal requirements.

 

Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a key lobbyist on school food matters, recently told The Washington Post that judging the guidelines in terms of food quality, as opposed to health measures, is a “foodie” concern. But of course the quality of food does matter if you want kids to eat it, and if you’re trying to teach children the difference between real food and the junk they’re exposed to every day.

What Wootan and these guidelines fail to take into account is the growing belief that schools should not merely feed hungry children, but show them there’s another world of food besides the junk food culture they grow up in.

It’s not just a matter of putting calories in kids’ bellies, not when food insecurity and obesity exist side-by-side. This is really a question of social justice for our times. Do the disadvantaged children for whom the subsidized meal program is designed deserve the opportunity to eat the same quality food as children from families who can afford to shop at a farmers market?

Picture the difference between processed chicken nuggets (still allowed under the new guidelines) and cooked-to-death broccoli, versus a salad bar of fresh vegetables, fruits, and maybe chicken salad.

What the public and mainstream media have yet to grasp is that serving real food in school takes radical changes on the local level, not merely tinkering with standards originating in Washington. That means an attitude change and a commitment on the part of local school officials, parents, and elected leaders.

And it will also take more than