Sunday, July 22, 2012

Milk, School Lunches, Ignorance, & Bad Policy

Having always taken my lunch to school as a child - mostly because I attended Catholic school - I never had much experience with the federal school lunch program.  Beyond that, what I did know of the program never impressed me much.  For example, the scene in Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me which exposes the program as mostly processed, reconstituted, reheated white carbs did nothing but turn my stomach.  And the connection the program has to a massive, bloated federal farm bill that subsidizes the corn, wheat, and dairy industry to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars only makes it worse.  Most Americans support efforts to rein in the mismanagement of federal farm funds that gives billions to agribusiness like Archer's Daniel Midlands and Con-Agra.  However, no politician will take on the task of cutting the funds because the lobby pays billions and cutting the farm bill would cut the federal lunch program.  And who wants the blame for cutting meals for poor kids?

Now, the debate gets a new angle as a credible challenge has arisen over the mandate for requiring that a daily serving of milk be included in every free and reduced lunch - and breakfast.  As if milk is the holy nectar of the gods and bestows all sorts of irreplaceable health benefits.  The reality, of course, is that it doesn't.  The inclusion of milk - and even the hugely popular "Got Milk" campaign - is more the work of an effective lobbying wing and marketing department for the dairy industry.  Milk is "a source of calcium," that is true.  But it's not a great source, or even, really, a good one.  And for the millions of people who are allergic to dairy or intolerant of dairy or simply don't like dairy, the advice and the mandate are worthless.  The human body is not really adept at synthesizing the calcium from milk, and despite the other nutrients and proteins that are in milk, it's not that great for people.  Of course, the best part of milk is the "milk fat" which is actually quite beneficial in the development of the gray matter in the brain for children up to about age five.  But, of course, Americans know little about nutrition and health, and, thus, they make the ignorant mistake of consuming - and even requiring - the use of low fat milk.

Beyond the basics of milk nutrition, consumers and schools also mistakenly allow the blind faith in milk to justify the sale, consumption, and even requirement of chocolate milk.  Because sugar is simply not the root of our weight problems, right?  The sugar is far more detrimental to the body than the fat, but school districts now must provide chocolate milk - because "the kids won't drink it otherwise" - and they must also make sure the chocolate milk is low-fat.  Of course, most people are clueless that milk manufacturers replace the milk with, wait for it .... sugar.  Taking the fat out of natural food products actually removes much of the flavor.  Thus, producers need to replace the flavor, and they generally rely on added sugar - even though sugar is far more dangerous to health.  In fact, it's worth noting that "fat" does not make people fat.  Sugar does.  That's why Atkins dieters can lose so much weight eating a high-fat, high protein diet.  Sugar is the danger - not fat.  Thus, chocolate milk as a required part of the lunch program is a terrible idea.

And, in many ways, the entire lunch program is a terrible idea.  Schools would be much better off if they received a block grant from the federal government, and schools could use the money to purchase locally grown and produced foods that could be prepared at the schools.  In fact, one of the best ideas I've heard is to make the federal lunch program part of a department for nutrition and culinary training.  There is so much we could do in schools to better promote health, if we didn't have dairy farmers and corn farmers setting the nutritional guidelines for schools.

And, that's a teacher's view of the dairy industry, agribusiness, and the federal school lunch program.  We can certainly do better.

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