As we got the last of the kids’ school supplies in order and filled out any remaining paperwork for the teachers on Monday night, I once again skimmed through the school handbook to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. I stopped at the food service section—something I hadn’t paid much attention to previously since my boys take lunch from home—and noticed that the school would be making some changes to its hot lunch menu according to new standards issued by the USDA.
When I began reading about the new changes, all seemed well to me at first, “Larger servings of fruits and vegetables…3/4 cup orange or red vegetable…1/2 a cup dark green vegetable…yes that seems like a good idea.” Then as I scanned further down the page, my eye caught upon, “Limit total amounts of meat,” and, “Milk offerings: Limited to 1% or fat free.” Well isn’t that just what a growing child’s body needs, I thought sarcastically to myself.
Sarcasm aside, you may recall Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program aimed at fighting the obesity epidemic in the United States. As part of this program, the First Lady and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack teamed up and created the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act that takes effect for the 2012-2013 school year. These changes are aimed at doing something right—improving our children’s health—but by reducing protein and milk fat, they are going about it all wrong.
Along with protein, there are key nutrients needed for brain development, particularly in growing children, some of them being Vitamin A, Vitamin D, DHA, Zinc, and cholesterol. Some of the best sources of these nutrients are egg yolks, butter, whole milk, fish, and red meat. Any vegetable-based substitutes are inferior to the real thing, and can even be harmful (like soy products). Plant-based forms of protein, such as beans, will not provide the same benefits necessary to brain development as meats since the proteins they contain are generally incomplete and nowhere near as plentiful. Though properly prepared beans and other plant proteins are a healthy addition to your child’s diet, they cannot be relied upon to provide the same nutritional benefits as meat.
While I agree with the idea of including more vegetables in school lunches, and I think a move toward whole grains is also a step in the right direction (though I still disagree with the amount of grains recommended in the USDA’s food pyramid), cutting meat and milk fat will only serve to undermine the extra benefits provided by all these extra veggies. Many of the vitamins contained within vegetables (including necessary and very important ones like Vitamins A, D, E and K) can only be absorbed by the body if fat is consumed—they are “fat-soluble vitamins” and they are essential to proper brain development and overall body health.
You may be wondering, if meat and animal fat are so good for us, then why is everyone telling me it’s so bad? The Lipid Hypothesis Theory is the main reason why meat, eggs, and full fat dairy products have gotten such a bad rap in the United States. A study conducted shortly after the end of WWII by Ancel Keys supposedly proved that diets high in fat and cholesterol caused heart disease. This study was flawed for two major reasons, however (type “ancel keys flawed study” into your web browser to find more supporting information). One, Ancel Keys actually had data from 22 different countries, yet he only used data from 7—the 7 who’s data would coincide with his hypothesis; the rest of the data he simply threw out. Secondly, this study was done around the same time major changes were taking place within our food system. There was a major increase in the amount of refined grains, sugars, and hydrogenated vegetable oils being consumed as part of the average American diet, and this trend continues today.
From this one flawed study, our country moved from natural, whole foods to the low-fat craze, with skim-milk, margarine, and soy powder to boot. This is despite the fact that since this study, no other studies have conclusively proved that saturated fat and cholesterol are unhealthy. The real culprits in our obesity epidemic are refined grains, sugar, and refined vegetable/hydrogenated oils, such as shortening, margarine, soy bean oil, and corn oil. This is what the USDA and our schools need to be looking at when planning meals, because these are the ingredients being served to our children that are causing the problems—not the meat and milk our ancestors have been consuming for hundreds of years. Sadly, however, food has become an industry now, and don’t fool yourselves, it’s about making money, though the government can spin it anyway they’d like.
These government regulations can leave a parent feeling pretty powerless and helpless. That is why I decided to write this letter to the editor--in hopes of making other parents more aware of these changes to our children’s school lunches, and to make a few suggestions to empower parents. There isn’t much your kids’ school can do about these changes since they have to comply with the rules handed down by the USDA. But we as parents can make choices to improve the health of our children. I would recommend to parents firstly that you do some research. If you type phrases such as “saturated fat myth” or “cholesterol health benefits” into your web browser, it should point you in the right direction. Take a couple hours to educate yourself on modern food production and see how it differs from how our great-grandparents ate.
And finally, I would also urge parents to have their children bring lunch from home whenever possible. I know how challenging this can be, since both my husband and I work full-time. It can be seemingly impossible some days to get a lunch put together; just do it when you can. Maybe it will only be once a week or maybe you’ll find you have more time for it than you thought. Every little bit will count toward undoing the damaged caused by years of food misinformation.