Dear EarthTalk: What are the new nutrition standards for school lunches that have some students boycotting their cafeterias and discarding the food? -- Melissa Makowsky, Trenton, NJ
Indeed, some 31 million American kids participating in the federally supported National School Lunch Program have been getting more whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables in their diets—whether they like it or not. The change is due to new school meal standards unveiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last January, per the order of 2010’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The new standards are based on the Institute of Medicine’s science-based recommendations, and are the first upgrade to nutritional standards for school meals since 1995 when low- and no-fat foods were all the rage.
New school meal standards hope to sway
The non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) believes the new standards represent an important milestone in efforts to improve the dietary habits and health of increasingly obese American kids. “Schools’ misguided reliance on processed foods for speedy, low-labor cost production, industry’s $1.6 billion in child-targeted advertising and a lack of faith in our children’s dietary curiosity [have] created a generation of ‘picky eaters’ with dull palates,” reports the group. “With nearly 17 percent of America’s children now clinically obese and a staggering 32 percent overweight, the time is long past to address the unhealthy food environments our children live in.”
The new standards limit calories per meal to 850 for high school meals, 700 for middle school and 650 for elementary and more than double the mandated minimum servings of fruits and vegetables while reducing the sodium, saturated fats and trans fats in school kids’ diets. Whole-grain foods, beans and dark green and orange vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, carrots and sweet potatoes have replaced things like pizza and French fries as staple items in schools that follow the program.
Of course, not everybody likes the changes. Lunch strikes, Facebook protest pages, Twitter campaigns, YouTube parody videos and other means have been utilized coast-to-coast to voice opposition to the healthier meals. Some affected cafeterias blame the new smaller portions and healthier fare for causing as much as a 70 percent drop-off in school lunch program participation since the new standards took effect.
Psychologists understand that kids may not come around to new foods right away but will eventually eat them—so the federal government and most participating schools are sticking to their guns. And the USDA says that if a school “encounters significant hardships employing the new calorie requirements, we stand ready to work with them quickly and effectively to remedy the situation with additional flexibilities.”
The benefits of the new standards far outweigh the costs. “School meals can help children develop healthy eating habits—or they can prime them for a life of poor health and unnecessary suffering,” says EWG.
EWG lauds the new standards for significantly expanding access to and appreciation of nourishing food. Whether they can help shift eating norms across the country remains to be seen, but regardless millions of American kids will likely now get their healthiest meals of the day on a tray in their school cafeterias.
CONTACTS: EWG, www.ewg.org; National School Lunch Program, www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/lunch/; Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/governance/legislation/cnr_2010.htm.
Dear EarthTalk: A friend of mine told me that our government kills thousands of wild animals like bears and wolves every year in the name of protecting livestock. How can the government, which is supposed to protect dwindling numbers of animals, instead be killing them? -- Amy Pratt, Troy, NY
The U.S. government kills 100,000 carnivores each
Actually, the federal government kills some 100,000 carnivores every year under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Wildlife Services program. While the program does much more than so-called “predator control”—threatened and endangered species conservation, invasive species mitigation, wildlife disease monitoring, airport bird strike prevention, rabies and rodent control—killing bears, wolves, coyotes and mountain lions to protect livestock does take up $100 million of the federal budget each year.
Animal advocates say it’s not fair to kill animals owned in essence by the public trust and indispensable to ecosystem health just to protect privately held livestock, let alone spend millions of tax dollars doing it.
“Working directly with commercial operators and state and local governments, Wildlife Services uses a combination of lethal control methods, like trapping, aerial gunning, poisoning, and denning (killing young in their dens), and some non-lethal control methods,” reports the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “But driven by narrow agricultural interests, these predator control activities often ignore the greater public need for a healthy environment, fiscal responsibility, and safe public lands.”
NRDC cites USDA statistics showing that most livestock losses result from weather, disease, illness and birthing problems—not predation. They also argue that the lethal methods employed by Wildlife Services have led to dozens of human and pet injuries and deaths and degrade ecosystems that rely on healthy predator populations to function. Also the two most commonly used poisons, Compound 1080 and sodium cyanide, go beyond killing animals and wreak havoc on entire ecosystems.
Predator Defense, another group committed to ending federal predator control efforts, says that it is important to maintain healthy populations of the very predators Wildlife Services works to kill. When, for instance, predators are around to keep deer and elk populations in check, more and varied kinds of plants are given space and time to grow, in turn preserving and creating habitat for many different species.
“Wildlife Services’ predator control work cries out for reform,” says NRDC. The group recommends bringing more transparency to the process so the public can assess how tax dollars are being used; taking a more scientific approach instead of centering the program around the demands of commercial interests; holding the program to higher environmental standards; ending the cruelest, most hazardous and environmentally harmful killing methods; and requiring non-lethal methods when possible.
There has been no decisive legislation to stop predator control efforts, but a bill introduced into the House by California Republican John Campbell III calls for amending the Toxic Substances Control Act to prohibit the use of Compound 1080 and sodium cyanide for predator control. The bill (H.R. 4214) was referred to committee and may or may not see a floor vote this year.