Thursday, April 26, 2007

Farm Policy and Fat People: Improving School Lunches

The other day, I highlighted this essay by Michael Pollan in the New York Times Magazine on the ways the federal farm bill distorts the food economy. Pollan also noted that the farm bill has an unfortunate effect on what our schools feed our children:
The farm bill helps determine what sort of food your children will have for lunch in school tomorrow. The school-lunch program began at a time when the public-health problem of America’s children was undernourishment, so feeding surplus agricultural commodities to kids seemed like a win-win strategy. Today the problem is overnutrition, but a school lunch lady trying to prepare healthful fresh food is apt to get dinged by U.S.D.A. inspectors for failing to serve enough calories; if she dishes up a lunch that includes chicken nuggets and Tater Tots, however, the inspector smiles and the reimbursements flow. The farm bill essentially treats our children as a human Disposall for all the
unhealthful calories that the farm bill has encouraged American farmers to overproduce.
Since the farm bill is largely written by and for farm interests, there has been little interest in changing federal food policy. But Pollan sees some hope that a more rational policy might make it into this year’s farm bill:
But there are signs this year will be different. The public-health community has come to recognize it can’t hope to address obesity and diabetes without addressing the farm bill. The environmental community recognizes that as long as we have a farm bill that promotes chemical and feedlot agriculture, clean water will remain a pipe dream. The development community has woken up to the fact that global poverty can’t be fought without confronting the ways the farm bill depresses world crop prices.
Today the Times reports that sound nutrition and farm policy just might be getting into alignment:
Junk foods like potato chips, doughnuts, chocolate-covered ice cream and sugary drinks should be banned from elementary, middle and high schools, according to a report released yesterday by the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences.
And Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, who sponsored the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act with Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, said he might put the report’s recommendations in this year’s farm bill. If that bill passes, the Department of Agriculture could be required to make sure the types of foods in the report are kept from schools.
If there’s one thing we can count on in Washington, it’s that a farm bill will be passed. If Tom Harkin, who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry Committee, wants sound nutrition to be part of the bill, then we just might see some progress in federal policy this year.

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