by Marion Nestle
Apr 7 2010

Eating Liberally: The Child Nutrition Act

I keep getting asked what I think about the Child Nutrition Act wending its way through Congress.  Kerry Trueman of Eating Liberally posed this as a Q and A:

Let’s Ask Marion: Does The USDA Stand for Ultra Silly Dietary Agenda?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics🙂

KT: Monday’s New York Times had an editorial supporting the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, a bill that would give the US Agriculture Department “new powers to set nutritional standards for any food sold on school grounds, particularly junk foods that contribute to obesity.”

The current standards leave a lot to be desired, as Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution has revealed. In the first episode, Jamie stood accused of shortchanging the kids on carbohydrates because he omitted the bread from a meal that already included rice.

Last Friday, in episode three, Jamie found himself charged with the violation of “insufficient vegetables,” despite the fact that his noodle-based entree featured seven different vegetables. The remedy? Add a bunch of french fries to the meal to meet the veggie quota.

How did the USDA’s school lunch standards ever get so nutritionally nutty? Would passage of the CNA support the wholesome, made-from-scratch meals that Jamie Oliver’s trying to bring back to our cafeterias?

Dr. Nestle: You are asking about the history of the USDA’s school lunch program? Nothing could be more complicated or arcane. Fortunately, two new books take this on: Susan Levine’s School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program (Princeton, 2010), and Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (California, 2010).

I used Poppendieck’s book in my Food Ethics class at NYU this semester and reading it while watching Jamie Oliver’s programs was a lot of fun. Yes, Oliver is doing reality television but no, he’s not exaggerating. If you find this difficult to believe, read Poppendieck’s book or take a quick look at Kate Adamick’s review of Oliver’s Food Revolution on the Atlantic Food Channel.

As Levine and Poppendieck explain, and as I discussed in Food Politics (California, 2007), school lunches started out as a way to dispose of surplus agricultural commodities by feeding hungry kids. Over the years, it got caught up in a series of “wars”–first on poverty, hunger, and malnutrition and later on welfare and obesity.

The politics of school lunch, and of the CNA in particular, have always reflected the tension inherent in any welfare program, in this case feeding the poor vs. inducing dependency and overspending. In recent years, as obesity became much more of a public health problem than malnutrition, the politics came to reflect the tensions between commercial interests and those of nutrition reformers. Congress is always involved as it endlessly tinkers with the rules for “competitive foods”–the sodas and snacks sold in competition with federally supported school meals.

Competitive foods put schools in a dilemma and in conflict of interest. They make money from competitive foods to help support the school lunch program. But sodas and snacks undermine participation in school meals programs.

Poppendieck points out that the result is a mess that leaves financially strapped school districts with few choices. It’s not that the “lunch ladies” (you have to love Jamie Oliver’s term) don’t know how to make decent meals. It’s that they are up against inadequate funding and equipment, and impossible nutrition standards that can be met most easily by commercial products like Uncrustables that are designed to meet USDA standards. My favorite example contains 51 ingredients (my rule is “no more than five”).  See Note below.

Inadequate funding is a big consideration in the Child Nutrition Act. This act provides $4.5 billion over 10 years for school meals. Although this represents a 10-fold increase over previous (2004) funding, it works out to an additional measly six cents per meal–not nearly enough to solve school districts’ financial problems.

But–and this is a huge step forward–the act gives USDA the authority to set nutrition standards not only for foods sold in the cafeteria but also in vending machines and a la carte lines.

And the bill does a few other Very Good Things. It provides:

  • An estimated $1.2 billion over 10 years for meals at after-school programs, free meals to all students in schools with high poverty levels, and increased availability of meals during summer months.
  • An estimated $3.2 billion for establishing nutrition standards, strengthening local wellness policies, and increasing reimbursement rates.
  • Mandatory funding for schools to establish school gardens and buy foods from local sources.
  • Increased training for local food service personnel.
  • Automatic enrollment of foster children for free school meals.

As for the pesky nutrition standards: the bill expects the USDA to revise them according to the recent report of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), School Meals: Building Blocks for Health Children. This report recommended a conversion to food-based, rather than nutrient-based, standards along with increases in the amount and variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and limits on calories, saturated fat, and sodium.

All of this makes the CNA well worth supporting. Is it perfect? Of course not. But it is a good first step to making big improvements eventually. In the meantime, plenty of schools are already doing great work and more are joining the food revolution one meal at a time. These deserve all the help we can give them.

*NOTE: the label of this particular Uncrustable was sent to me by Daniel of Ithaca, who works in an upstate New York school district:


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  • Anna

    I don’t understand all the effort to take away whole milk and reduce saturated fat. Kids need these foods for brain development. When you look at the unhealthy meals and processed foods, they all contain unnatural oils (soy, corn, canola – very processed oils, high in omega-6 oils and not found anywhere in nature). That is my biggest problem with this legislation. It again attacks natural things like whole milk (which have supported health for thousands of years), while leaving huge amounts of additives, unnatural oils and sugar. Which is most likely to cause problems??

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  • Does anyone know if the bill discusses the “offer versus serve” idea? I’m a big proponent of not forcing kids to take foods they have no intention of eating. Giving them a choice of 3 out of 5 items seems to make more sense.

  • The intention of feeding poor children at school so they do not go without eating is a good one. However this program winds up affecting every school across the country. In my wealthy town (by gov’t standards and per census data) has rich kids eating this crap too.

    Here it is ‘cool’ to eat the school lunch even in elementary school brown bagging it is looked down on and made fun of by other kids as being ‘babies’. The pizza and french fries and tater tots are the favorites of all the kids. My town spends $9500 per elem and middle school student and $14500 for high school yet the food is cheap garbage chemical stuff. Who ever said a good meal should cost $1 or (insert other too-low figure).

    (By the way kids haven’t changed much tater tots and french fries were the favorites in the 1970s and 1980s when I went to public school. I hated the lunch and lived on Grandma’s brand chocolate chip cookies, chocolate milk, skipped breakfast, and bought fundraiser for school and sports teams M&Ms sold by students to eat as my food and I was thin and healthy.)

    Our family is becoming enlightened by Jamie Oliver’s show.

    I don’t know what the solution is but you get what you pay for, cheap food with low prep work is garbage. Period.

    BTW about five years ago, someone I know started a business making healthy food from scratch using organic ingredients and was selling this to daycare centers and private schools in Fairfield County CT. Unfortunately the parents complained of the fee, I think it was $3.50 a day, they said it was too much to spend on their child’s lunch! (How much is that cup of Starbucks you are drinking and what did your husband’s Rolex cost?) Meanwhile they’re paying private school tuition and making over $100K a year if not over $200K. That small business had a nightmare of government regulations that forced the operating costs up (have a non-home based commercial kitchen etc.). The business folded due to lack of interest, cheap parents and costs being perceived as too high.

  • I agree with Anna, why should we be forced to continue to shell out money to pay for all of these fake foods to serve our children? They need real, whole fats to develop, learn, grow, and be successful in school. Whole milk, butter, coconut oil, olive oil, lard, tallow, meats, and real dairy products from healthy pastured animals and birds should be the absolute priority and the order of the day for our children. Why they are continually served rancid, industrial, fake oils is beyond me. When did we decide this was good idea and accept it as a healthy alternative to real fats? The traditional foods I mentioned have sustained health on this planet for thousands and thousands of years, and these new fangled oils and fats do nothing of the sort. They are cheap, industrial by-products of oils that are not fit for human consumption, period.

    This is a massive problem and MUST be addressed or we will continue to see the epidemics of heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, mood disorders, autism, and just about any other major illness you can name skyrocket so far out of control, nothing will be able to stop it.

    I also agree that people need to stop complaining about paying more for real food. People have their priorities completely out of whack when they will go to the coffee shop and shell out $8 for a mocha and a cinnamon roll and spend lots of money on video games, sports cars, TEVO, DVD players, new computers, and designer clothes but aren’t willing to pay money for real, sustainable foods. This is proposterous and it shows the condition to which we have sunk about materialism, but won’t lift a finger to make change where change is needed in our schools and our health care system – and the food system is directly tied to our health care system, by the way. It’s not a separate entity that has no connection. It’s all intrisically tied together. And food is inextricably tied to the economy and our future welfare – it’s tied to our identity, our health, and the way we fit together as a community. It must be made the centerpiece of our culture again as it was two hundred years ago if we want to see the change we claim to want.

  • JamesO

    I think Jamie is doing a great job, and he is helping where he can but it has to start in the home. Everyone should know how to cook at least 1 proper healthy meal. I am a big proponent of taxing junk food and sodas like we do tobacco and alcohol.

  • Chris Mc

    Does anyone remember BEFORE politics got really involved in school? Kids WALKED to school. All schools taught the same agenda – some kids were better – some were not – that’s the way it was – we learned. The only kids that ate at school were the ones with no parent at home during lunchtime. Brown bagging was the norm – eating at school was frowned upon. Changes are not always for the better.

  • I am not sure where politics’ role is in nutrition. It is pretty dicey.
    Government in education has been a pile up for years, in all aspects and most of the good intentions are weighed down by it’s own two feet.

    Jamie O has is right beyond belief though. We need to serve whole foods and hot is not always the road to healthy. Whole foods, grains, real butter, coconut yes, nothing artificial. I could go on but I have to respond to Chris Mc. You must be of a certain distinguished age because I remember my father ( a war and depression baby) telling me about walking home for lunch. I also remember the few rare occasions I ate school lunch in the 1970s and even then, there was a smell and a texture that did not echo food from my Italian home grown and home made home.

    None the less, as a advocate for children with learning differences, I think it is extremely limited to compare school lunches to school learning. Agendas….I just have to hold my tongue but at minimun SHOUT that all children have a right to learn whether or not they have vision, hearing, language or neurological impairments. The very sights that allow Jamie O and you and I to communicate are often created by divergent thinkers. Comparing the indulging and overeating, not walking of America and learning apples and oranges.

  • I typed minimum incorrectly.

  • I also typed sights incorrectly, I intended to write sites..

  • Sue

    With creativity, I can easily come in around 2.25 – 2.50 for my kids healthy bagged lunch….that’s what their school lunch costs. If I can do that for two kids, the school should be able to figure out how to do it with the ablility to buy and store in bulk, buy local products, and with the budgets they have. The amount of waste is disgraceful. Jamies show is awesome and I hope it has a major affect on America!!!

  • Michele

    In response to Anna:
    my biggest problem with this legislation. It again attacks natural things like whole milk (which have supported health for thousands of years), while leaving huge amounts of additives, unnatural oils and sugar. Which is most likely to cause problems??

  • Michele

    In response to Anna:
    my biggest problem with this legislation. It again attacks natural things like whole milk (which have supported health for thousands of years), while leaving huge amounts of additives, unnatural oils and sugar. Which is most likely to cause problems??

    Anna, the milk that children are drinking has NOT supported health for thousands of years. 1st drinking milk as a beverage is a 20th century idea. Before the 20th century people did not as much milk as children do now. There were not adequate cooling facilities and it didn’t taste as good, because it came directly from the cow! Milk would be used in baking more than drinking. Also 100 years ago those cows did not have the hormones and chemicals that they are being pumped full of now. Unless you go out and buy ORGANIC milk from grass fed cows you ingest all those hormones as well. That last time I looked public schools do not offer organic milk. So maybe we should be rethinking all the food the children eat especially the milk.

  • Sue

    Michelle I have to concur. Most people in the world are lactose intolerant as well. The ability to break down the enzymes is an evolutionary thing that began in Europe – most notably among the Swedes and Irish.
    I wish they offered lactose free milk to those who cannot tolerate it but even more so, I wish they wouldnt offer the sugar, flavoring and fake coloring filled milks they offer now to get the kids to drink it.

  • LArry

    When i was going to grade school in a north suburb of Chicago, we didn’t have school lunch! All we got from the school was milk. And it was not chocolate! When I moved to Oregon, then we had lunches. Pizza, flying sacuers. (if you have to ask…) We were not allowed to go to recess unless excused. Which ment, eating them green beans! High school, we had way to much choice! You could get mashed potatoes and gravy with a side of fries! Who wouldn’t want a nap after that? I feel there should be choices, but they should include everything. If you want pizza, you get this and this with it. You shouldn’t be able to just get starch…!

  • Elisa

    Hurray for Jamie Oliver & his food revolution! I wish he could visit every public school in America! As for the milk comments: he was referring to chocolate & strawberry milks which are filled with high fructose corn syrup & food dyes, & the AAP only recommends whole milk to children under 5 usually unless they’re underweight. 2% milk is recommended to elementary & middle-school-aged children & 1% to high-schoolers. Since schools don’t offer organic milk they’re already consuming artificial hormones & who knows what else from cows that never leave a barn & are fed magical milk-inducing cocktails.
    Then there’s the juice & fruit cups they offer: full of sugar, high fructose corn syrup & food dyes. Vegetables & salads are offered, but in a highly unattractive manner, which no elementary student would ever choose. Most of the main courses are pre-packaged & highly unrecognizable unless you look at the menu to see what it is. It’s no wonder the kids on the show didn’t know what a potato or tomato was or how chicken nuggets are being made nowadays! Elementary teachers shouldn’t have to teach kids what fruits & vegetables are, they should know by then! Shame on those parents! I’ve seen the packed lunches full of Lunchables high in sodium, fat & artifical ingredients; cheetos & doritos; oreos; self-proclaimed juices that are only 5-10% juice & the rest corn syrup & dyes. I’m just referring to elementary & preschoolers here! I work with children under age 6!
    Then there’s the inactivity: children under age 6 are generally given 30 minutes outside per day! Even toddlers are overweight now, walking around all day with a milk or Hi-C in one hand & chips or cookies in the other. As for older kids, maybe all video/computer games should be programmed to turn off automatically after 30 minutes & not allow a re-boot for an hour.
    I’m glad there’s help for the needy, too, but the middle class is completely overlooked & undereducated, too. I really hope this show will effect the middle class. There should be more programs on healthy living for families. They need someone to go to the grocery store with them & teach them how to read labels. I agree with the junk food tax idea. The poor won’t starve because food stamps & WIC DO pay for healthy foods!
    I could go on all day about this! Keep it going everyone!

  • Sara S.

    I walked to school, and the high school future farmers of Aer

  • Sara

    I walked to school, and the high school Future Farmers of America grew food for the district. The home economics class canned the corn and beans etc. Then we ate it for lunches. I remember walking home and being bummed I couldn’t stay for lunch. then everything changed. The program was stopped because the governement came in and regulated out lunch program. High school Kids canning stuff was to “dangerous.” Then the food in the school became terrible stuff. In High school we had moved to another district and I lived on Susi-Q’s

    I have seen salad bars cleared at lunch in elementary schools the kids will eat it. In fact it became the most popular feature of the lunch room. But so few Schools are willing to put in the effort of chopping a few vegetables and put in the clean up for fresh healthy food!

  • Michelle and Sue –

    Milk causes allergies because the lactase, the digestive enzyme present in milk naturally becomes destroyed in the pasteurization process. Pasteurization originally came about because dairies were starting to grow and become lax in their sanitation methods. Also, when cattle are on feedlots and fed grains and soy (cattle are ruminants and are not meant to ingest grains nor soy), their intestinal tracts become riddled with pathogenic strains of E. coli. Everyone has E.coli in their intestinal tract, it’s the strain that matters. If we had a more diverse ecosystem of bacteria to choose from in our food system, many of us would not contract the deadly diseases we do. Our digestion needs diversity, and we aren’t getting it from conventional foods raised from mono-farming and commercial farming methods.

    Milk has been a staple food eaten by traditional cultures for nearly 11,000 years. It has only been in the last 140 years or so that it has become a food of convenience, stripped of its nutritional value for the sake of being able to package and sell it to billions of people. Our family drinks raw milk, eats yogurt made from that raw milk, and eats raw cheese, butter, and cream. All of us had “dairy allergies” for years, but now have absolutely no problem with our dairy foods. My husband was riddled with allergies for most of his life EVERY DAY, 365 days a year, took prescription meds for them, and got no relief. Then he stopped eating pasteurized dairy, started down the raw path, and has never looked back. He has NO allergies any longer.

    Our children need real milk, or no milk at all. Period.

  • Bernadette G

    Children do not need whole milk for fat or saturated fats for that matter. They need whole foods, whole grains and a foundation for learning good eating habits that will benefit them for the rest of their life and teach them to make good choices. I tell my three year old what each food does for us and about limiting her sugar and treats and she will choose to not eat allot of candy and save it for small bits. She also loves her salad and its all because we offered it to her from the beginning and taught her. I don’t want her going to school and the only options are pizza and flavored milk. Where I live they have decided to introduce Root beer flavored milk because they felt the kids were not drinking enough milk. Kids do not need to depend on milk for their nutrition. My daughter drinks water and gets some milk and rarely juice. She gets plenty of calcium from cheese, yogurt, etc. Kids don’t need to drink their nutrition. Also the schools need to provide the nutrition but even low income families can be involved in what their child eats and teach their child to take the healthy choices, if they don’t get their milk or calcium at home teach your child to take the milk at school. Schools are responsible for allot but the parents need to be more involved and should know what choices their kids are making and what they are eating at lunch. If it wasn’t caught on tape I wouldn’t have believed what I saw on Jamie Oliver. Do they realize how ridicules it sounds to say that french fries are a vegetable! I love Jamie Oliver!!

  • Elizabeth

    My mother worked in the school food and nutrition for 18 years. She is watching the Jamie Oliver Food Revolution program with me and she is so excited that someone is finally addressing the problems she had to accept for the many years she was there. I am so happy to see that people are being educated as to the awful food we are serving our children! Potatoes a vegetable! It’s a disgrace! I agree with so many of the comments made here and I am very hopeful that the revolution has begun. It is no accident that since these highly proccessed foods have been being consumed not only at school but also in our everday lives (look in your shopping cart and the cart of others in the grocery store) that there has been an alarming uprise in diabetes and cancers in our country. What is the percentage of prepackaged foods vs. fresh and raw foods that need to be prepared or cooked in the course of a day of eating in the American diet? It’s not as complicated as we make it, we have to get back to basics! That starts with our children!
    Jamie Oliver…America Loves You!

  • I am lactose intolerant, and now that I’ve become in-tuned to the ill effects of GMO’s, I am only purchasing ORGANIC milk that’s Lactose Free for my family. Seems the schools could do the same – as an alternative for those children who are lactose-intolerant and/or prefer the ORGANIC, non-hormone tainted variety.

    Why not give these organic, non-GMO farmers our tax dollars? They just as deserving as any other politically sponsored supplier out there! Spend the tax dollars in our local communities to feed our children healthy foods at school!

  • Cow’s milk is not a necessary component of HUMAN life. We require milk for the first 3 years of life, but it’s provided by a HUMAN MOM, not a BOVINE MOM.

    That being said, the Federal School Lunch requirements aren’t based on nutritional standards, they’re based on lobbyists, large corporate interests, and donations to campaigns.

    Why is it that the number of people worldwide who are overnourished now is greater than those who are malnourished? It’s because of policies such as the “reimbursement for food as long as these arbitrary guidelines are enforced” and the incredible lobbying/advertising campaigns that have brainwashed us into thinking BOVINE MILK & Increased protein ingestion is “necessary” to human survival.

    I do not eat ANY animal products, whether in their whole form or in their manufactured, processed, or baked/frozen forms. I recently had bloodwork completed which showed remarkable health. I am 28 years old, weigh 145lbs, and stand at 6’2″ tall.

    In the waiting room of my doctors’ office, there are “extra-wide” chairs for the fat people. Being obese is being American. Unless we teach children what to eat, how much of it to eat, and the value of nutrition, we’ll continue to “grow” as a nation.

    Adequate & appropriate nutrition is essential for the growth and development of tomorrow’s thinkers & leaders. Cows’ milk is designed to turn a 100lb calf into a 600lb cow in 1 year. Now why are we the only species on the planet (except domesticated house cats) to drink the milk of ANOTHER SPECIES??

    There is much more variety as a vegan than there is as a meat-eater in the USA. I’m actually offended when offered a salad. It’s not about salads, it’s about whole-body health!

  • Anna

    I clearly opened up a firestorm with the milk comment. Some people may choose not to drink it, but the fact remains milk has supported health for thousands of years in many cultures and, when organic and not ultra-pasteurized (yogurt cannot be made with ultra-pasteurized milk because cultures won’t grow on it, and if bacteria cannot grow on it then human life probably can’t either), milk can be a perfectly healthy product. And since schools won’t be getting rid of milk soon and it is the best source of calcium and other minerals, let’s at least make sure it’s whole milk and not full of sugar and colors. Kids absolutely do need saturated fat for brain development (both saturated and omega 3 fatty acids are required by the brain and all kids are getting are loads of omega-fats from vegetable oils).

  • Eric – what exactly can you eat in the way of variety if you are a vegan? Vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, soy, corn, and nuts are about the only things I can conjur. The only source of Vitamin A, as one example, which is critical to health, comes from animal and bird products. In fact, the most nutrient-dense foods on the earth are from healthy animals and birds. Here’s the link:

    If you are a vegan, you are grossly nutrient deficient and eventually will experience health problems. There is simply no way around it. Many vegan food products are fortified with synthetic nutrients as the foods are highly processed and strip what nutrients do occur in those foods away. Soy, grains, legumes, corn, and rice contain phytic acid, a nutrient inhibitor which prevents absorption of nutrients unless properly prepared – as in soaked, sprouted, and or fermented. Most people I know don’t soak, sprout or ferment their foods, but this is the way our ancestors traditionally prepared foods for health and nutritional value.

    When I say I advocate eating animal and bird products, I mean specifically those raised on pasture and without hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, chemicals, or anything else artificial. In other words, those raised naturally. Animals and birds that come from feedlots represent the bulk of what’s available in our country. You must source food locally to be assured of what it’s being fed and how it is living before it is slaughtered for food.

    Anne’s right, cow’s milk, sheep’s milk, and goat’s milk are traditional foods you will find that people have eaten and thrived on for thousands of years.

    The reason you are seeing obese people is not because of saturated fat consumption. Health experts have been preaching the low-fat mantra for decades, and yet our population is some of the most disease ridden on the planet. Doesn’t it seem odd that with all the low-fat and low-carb rhetoric we have in our health communities, that if it were a successful way to lose weight and be healthy, we’d see the trends going that way? But the trends are just increasing in the disease direction. So doesn’t it make perfect sense that the answer is to eat local, eat organic when you can, know where your food comes from, cook from scratch, and increase our saturated fat intake from real, healthy fats. This is how our ancestors ate, and they were much healthier than we ever were – we have an advantage they didn’t – we have technology, electricity, running water, and sanitation. We should use our knowledge of nutrient-dense foods grown in diverse, healthy bacteria populate crops to strengthen our immune systems and learn about biodiversity and the boundless benefits it confers upon our state of health. That includes grass-fed meats, fermented foods, raw milk, lacto-fermented dairy foods, and nourishment prepared from the earth without pollution and interruption from political corruption, government regulations, lobbyists, and strong-arm tactics from the food industry and pharmaceutical corporations.