Issues regarding School Lunches – Is Pizza a Vegetable? Does it even matter?

Today in one of my classes, we had a huge discussion regarding school lunch policy, and how best to make significant changes in our schools to improve child health and reduce obesity. I think they used the catch phrase “fruits and vegetables” about 23847 times (I counted), and I was frustrated to say the least that we are constantly pounding down the idea that increasing fruits and vegetables (and even whole grains) while reducing fat, saturated fat, and sodium is the only way to improve child nutrition. I fail to see any evidence to support this suggestion, and it would be nice to run some type of pilot program focusing on the actual nutrition interventions that work in the schools.

However, as I’ve discovered today, there are many problems facing those of us trying to improve school food. First, most schools have a fairly strict contract with a certain food service provider that not only controls the supply of food for schools, but also blocks many of the positive changes that might be made in our school food that require less centralization of food production. Second, the USDA has developed nutritional standards for school food that are completely biased towards supporting American agricultural commodities, and are not based on any scientific evidence proving these changes have any effect.

I mean, I have absolutely no issues with increasing produce in the school lunches. My major issue is the huge focus on fat and saturated fat reduction. I brought this point up in class, considering the major lunch changes are coming in the form of “reduced fat” products, which are inevitably going to be more processed and higher in sugar than natural fatty foods like whole milk or full fat cheese. They’re also trying to replace butter with margarine (horror!) and to serve fat free dressings along with their vegetables. This is what blows my mind, because not only is there no evidence that low fat diets actually reduce obesity in children, but feeding children low fat diets is especially problematic considering they are in their prime age for brain development and growth. I mean, is it any wonder that kids have ADHD and obesity when we’re cutting all the fat out of the diet and replacing it with sugar and refined grains?

Fat is a seriously critical nutrient for children who are growing and developing; it’s important for their brain health, hormonal development, bone density, among many other factors dependent on adequate intake of healthy fats. To completely strip natural fats out of children’s diets and replace these fats with industrial products high in sugar and refined grains is completely unfounded in science and quite likely dangerous as far as these children’s health goes.

I love the fact that my professors bring up these really important topics in my class. That’s one of the reasons I’ve really enjoyed my time so far at UNC, since we are constantly debating the merits of certain policies and nutritional interventions in the lack of supportive science. I hope that people continue to debate the efficacy of the government’s proposed changes, and really start critically thinking about the realities of appropriate human diets and how this translates into public policy.

Apparently, the government is having a hard time figuring out whether we should consider pizza as a vegetable. Is this really what our tax money is paying for?

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  1. I’m curious what reaction your classmates and professors had to the idea that cutting fat out of a child’s diet might not be a good thing. On a side note… I hear people complain more and more frequently that they can’t digest fatty foods (and assume that is actually proof-positive that the USDA/FDA was right all along about fats being bad for us). If you ever come across information that might be helpful for reincorporating fats back into someone’s diet I (and probably many other readers) would find that fascinating.

    and keep up the great work.

    1. Thanks Jeff! It was interesting because one of the panel members discussing the new diet changes (an RD) hesitantly mentioned that “saturated fats might not be as bad as we once thought” and that she wasn’t sure what science the proposed menu changes were based on specifically.

      I wonder how many of your friends are talking about saturated fat from animal, dairy, or coconut products, as opposed to “fatty” foods cooked in industrial seed oils? I know that if I were to eat fried foods now, I’d probably be sick, whereas I can spoon coconut oil into my coffee and have no problem. If anything, I feel that healthy fats actually aid my digestion and help in long term satiety.

      I would also question what their salt intake is, since inadequate chloride can negatively affect stomach acid, making it harder to digest food fully. Also, they may have pancreas or liver problems that reduce the production of bile, which helps break down fats in the digestive tract. There are many complicated reasons for poor fat digestion, especially in older people.

      But as I said, see if your friends are struggling with naturally occurring fats in meat, dairy, or coconut, or whether they’re simply reacting to the inflammatory PUFAs that most “fatty” foods contain. Hope that helps!