Friday, November 18, 2011

Ketchup may no longer be a vegetable, but pizza is.

If you've been following American food news, you've probably heard that the US Congress has voted to make pizza a vegetable. (No, the link isn't to a Wall-E clip.) More precisely, the guidelines for nutrition in  school lunches now assert that the two tablespoons of tomato sauce on a slice of pizza counts towards the weekly calculation of vegetable servings. The proposal to limit servings of potatoes (often in the form of hashbrowns and fries) per week was also dismissed.
Probably not this pizza.
I went to a "community school" for grades seven and eight. It was located in a newly gentrifying area, and had a mix of incomes represented, tending to the lower end. It didn't have a cafeteria or lunch program (very few schools in the city did) but I remember getting weekly donations of free muffins. I usually chose chocolate-chocolate chip: sweet, fatty, calorie-dense, likely nutritionally void. It didn't occur to me at the time to wonder at the donation. Cynically, I wonder now - was it a tax write-off? Past-date goods? An attempt to make us future muffin customers? Or just a treat for the poor kids? What, exactly, was the purpose of the muffin?

It is hard not to be cynical when looking at the lobbying that was behind Congress's decision. Food companies including ConAgra, Coca-Cola, Del Monte Foods and makers of frozen pizza like Schwan argued that the proposed rules would raise the cost of meals (14 cents per meal according to the Department of Agriculture) and require food that many children would throw away.

Here's some background on school lunches in the United States.
In fiscal year 2009, federal school nutrition programs underwrote more than five billion meals served to over 31 million students. Students are entitled to free lunches if their families’ incomes are below 130 percent of the annual income poverty level guideline established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and updated annually by the Census Bureau ($29,055 for a family of four in 2011). Children who are members of households receiving food stamp benefits or cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, as well as homeless, runaway, and migrant children, also qualify for free meals. Students with family incomes below 185 percent of poverty are eligible for a reduced price lunch. Of the five billion meals provided to 31.8 million students during the 2008-09 school year, 55 percent were free of charge, 10 percent were reduced price, and the other 35 percent were paid.
That's 17.5 million children living in poverty. Surely there is a duty to provide them with nutrition, not the cheapest mass-produced schlock available. If the government is not going to address societal problems that perpetuate poverty, is not properly funding and regulating school meals the least it can do?

Libertarians will cry, "It's the parents' responsibility!" Sure, in an ideal world, with parents who have nutritional knowledge, cooking skills, and access to cheap, healthy ingredients. We don't live in that world. Let's work with the one we have.

No comments:

Post a Comment