Commentary: The latest threat to national security? Salty school lunches

Dan Glickman and Ann M. Veneman
CQ-Roll Call

The Department of Agriculture’s decision to weaken school nutrition standards turns back the clock on the progress already made to provide our nation’s children with healthier meals and healthier diets. As former agriculture secretaries, we are disappointed that the 30 million kids who depend on these meals every day will continue to be served foods with higher salt content, fewer whole grains, and milk with higher amounts of sugar.

This decision not only puts their health at risk, but could have ripple effects on national security, with increasing numbers of young Americans unfit for military service due to weight and other health issues. The irony of this decision today is that the national school lunch program was the result of military leaders convincing President Truman in 1946 of the need for healthier recruits.

Nearly one in five school-aged kids are obese, which puts them at higher risk for developing diabetes, heart disease, and cancer later in life. Since many children eat up to half their daily calories at school, these meals contribute substantially to children’s overall nutrition. They also play a major role in teaching kids what a healthy, balanced meal looks like. If kids are getting too much salt and sugar and not enough whole grains at school, we are setting them up for poor dietary habits as adults.

As we’ve written before, these standards were the product of two bipartisan child nutrition bills and nearly a decade of work from the Bush and Obama administrations. We acknowledge there were challenges with implementing the new standards when they went into effect in 2012, such as concerns by some schools over flexibility with food choices and questions about whether kids would accept the taste of lower-salt meals and the texture of whole grains.

However, schools across the country have worked very hard to provide healthy, delicious choices. And with the updated standards going into effect over six years ago, these new meals are all that today’s elementary schoolers have ever known.

Nine out of 10 children consume too much sodium, which can raise blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and hypertension in adulthood. Sadly, one in six children already has elevated blood pressure, and 90 percent consume too much sodium. But instead of sticking to the scheduled phase-in of strong sodium standards, the administration has punted the next reduction until 2024 and eliminated the final sodium target altogether.

School-aged children and adolescents also get over 15 percent of their calories from sugar _ far higher than the Dietary Guidelines’ recommended limit. They also consistently over-consume refined grains and under-consume whole grains. We should not be promoting more sugar and refined grains in kids’ diets, but that is exactly what these new standards would allow.

Finally, we don’t think it is good governance to roll back standards that have been in place for more than half a decade. Research in Washington state shows a 29 percent increase in the overall nutritional quality of school meals, and kids are eating 15 percent more fruits and vegetables, according to USDA research. Nearly 100,000 schools participate in the National School Lunch Program, and 95 percent were already meeting the new standards by the end of the previous administration. The 5 percent of schools that were not in compliance were given technical assistance, peer-to-peer mentoring, and narrow flexibilities to assist them. This is what you do when a small minority of programs are having trouble; rolling back standards for everyone is not.

If we ever want to reduce the obesity crisis in the United States, we need strong leadership and persistence from the federal government, industry, states, communities, schools and families. It’s a team effort. With 31 percent of today’s young adults unfit for military service due to obesity, and another 40 percent disqualified for other reasons, backing down on school nutrition standards poses a national security threat. There is no doubt this rule puts our nation’s physical and fiscal health in jeopardy. We urge the administration to listen to the tens of thousands of public comments submitted in favor of the healthier standards and reconsider these changes to the rule. Our children deserve strong, evidence-based standards for their school meals.