Legislating Vegetables: Current Experiments with School Lunch and SNAP

Maria Mendez (left) and Jilver Castillo (right), Arlington Food Services serve lunch of Baja Fish Taco wraps, Turkey Hot Dogs, Cherry Tomatoes w/dip, Baked Beans and Fresh Fruit for Washington-Lee High School students in Arlington, Virginia on Wednesday, October 19, 2011. The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service operating in public, nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. USDA Photo by Bob Nichols. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

I owe you an update on my diet and exercise status but that will be coming on Thursday. I have been continuing my progress and have a lot to tell you.

Today, however, I thought it would be interesting to expand on our discussion of organizing healthier eating by extending our discussion from eating healthier in our own homes to looking at an example of how expanding healthy eating to the national level faces extreme challenges. Food is so personal and people have strong opinions when anyone tries to implement (rather than just “encourage” or “suggest”) healthy eating.

If you are concerned about obesity (and who isn’t?), then it would make sense that if you are a taxpayer and you see the government spending a lot of money on food through programs like the National School Lunch Program, you might want to see if you could make a difference in kids’ health by changing the food content of those programs to include healthier options. Simple, right? No way.

The main goal of the National School Lunch Program of course, is to make sure that poor (and often hungry) children in the public school system don’t starve and are getting at least one, if not more, meals each day. I would hope most of us can agree that that is a good idea. School lunch currently includes a variety of foods, some healthy and some not so healthy, that kids will eat, including things like burritos, hamburgers, pizza and French fries.

Healthy meal choices of Baja Fish Taco Wraps and Turkey Hot Dogs at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia for lunch service on Wednesday, October 19, 2011. USDA Photo by Bob Nichols. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

The U.S.D.A. seems to have a particular interest in school lunches when it comes to nutritional content.

“Because children in low socio-economic status households are more likely to have the lowest
intakes of fruits and vegetables (Dubowitz et al., 20082), increasing fruit and vegetable
intakes in this population even by small amounts is likely to confer a health benefit.”

–U.S.D.A., Evaluation of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program: Interim Report, September 2011

So what happens when you try to tinker with school lunch? The sparks start to fly. The Washington Post reported on the complex procedure of this legislation in a story on November 15.

Essentially, the U.S.D.A. was proposing to limit the amount of “starchy vegetables” to no more than 1 cup per week. These “bad” vegetables include:

“Bad” Vegetables

White potatoes
Lima beans

Healthy choices of fresh fruit, salads and vegetables at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia for lunch service on Wednesday, October 19, 2011. USDA Photo by Bob Nichols. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

The U.S.D.A. also wanted to change how tomato paste is counted as a vegetable for purposes of school lunch. (I am not exactly sure if they wanted to increase the amount or discard it altogether.) There were also proposals to limit sodium and increase whole grains in the lunches that were also discarded.

Why would anyone vote down these changes? While obviously some food businesses had interests in maintaining the status quo, there were also concerns about costs for these changes and also some common sense questions that intake of any vegetables “bad” or not would be better than nothing.

“[S]tudents would not be allowed to eat a baked potato one day and an ear of fresh corn later that week, an ‘absurd result.’”

–Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), quoted in “Obama administration loses effort to make school lunches healthier,” The Washington Post, November 15, 2011

One commenter on the article aptly stated, “It doesn’t do much good to serve kids food they won’t eat.” Some felt that each school should be able to make these decisions.

NPR did an interesting story about how difficult it is to make even small changes to school lunch programs, like eliminating chocolate milk in favor of plain milk. Here in Virginia, for example, a local lunch lady is quoted:

“‘When we eliminated chocolate milk’ explains Penny McConnell of the Fairfax County Schools, ‘we had as many parents upset as the ones who were pleased with it.’ Some worried their children would stop drinking milk and wouldn’t get enough calcium.”

“What’s To Love And Loathe About Chocolate Milk?,” NPR Morning Edition, November 21, 2011

Not all news is doom and gloom about the school lunch program, however. CBS News found Michelle Malm, a school lunch lady in California who transformed the nutritional content of her school lunch program by partnering with local farms to use fresh, local produce. While not every school is as lucky to have those types of farms nearby (or such an innovative lunch lady), it is an incredible example of how school lunch could be done right.

Clearly, healthy eating is something we need to continue to educate ourselves about throughout our lives. Food education in the school system has a lot of benefits, both for the kids who actually eat the food and the knowledge that these children will hopefully share with their parents and other people in their lives.

The other large food distribution program administered by the government is the food stamp or SNAP program, that essentially provides grocery money to those in need. A recent NBC Rock Center report indicates that a staggering 15% of the population is currently receiving SNAP benefits. Can the government dictate the types of foods that SNAP benefits can purchase?

Under current SNAP regulations, SNAP recipients can use their benefits to purchase most food items at the grocery store. They cannot purchase alcohol or tobacco or pet food with their benefits but they can purchase junk food, including soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers, and ice cream. In the past, it has been too costly and administratively burdensome to attempt to limit the exact types of foods that can be purchased by SNAP familties.

However, under a test program in Hampden County, Massachusetts that started this month called the “Healthy Incentives Program” or HIP, 1,500 SNAP families can receive extra SNAP money if they choose to purchase certain kinds of fruits and vegetables in their monthly grocery shopping. You can read the restrictions here. In general, families can buy any fruits or vegetables that don’t have added sugar, salt or fat. But interestingly, there is a particular hostility to allowing these families to buy white potatoes, beans, “fruit-nut mixtures” and “mixed vegetables containing white potatoes.”

No program will ever be perfect in its design but I am pleased to see someone trying to encourage healthy eating in this vulnerable population. It will be interesting to see if it has the intended result.

In reading the transcript of a SNAP symposium on the HIP program, I was struck to read this quote:

“[I]f the kids want it, the parents buy it. That’s been pretty well borne out in the literature.”

–Debrah Palmer, Associate Extension Specialist and Director of the New Jersey Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program, speaking at a panel discussion for the HIP Symposium, October 16, 2008

So yet again, we see an emphasis on influencing children rather than adults to implement healthy eating initiatives among the poor.

I am sorry to see that the legislation improving school lunch did not pass. Did it perhaps go too far in its attempt to differentiate between good and bad vegetables and tomato paste? If those provisions were left out and instead we reduced sodium and increased whole grains might it have passed? Who knows? I hope this is a conversation that Congress will continue to have in the future or that school lunch professionals around the country can be incented by local school boards or parents to improve lunches on their own making this conversation unnecessary.

What are your thoughts on school lunch or SNAP legislation? What rules would you like to see to improve the health of school-age children and poor families? Please share in the comments.