Posts Tagged ‘School Lunches’
Obesity has grown into an alarming public health crisis, and there is no telling when or even whether we will be able to get this epidemic under control. Over two thirds of Americans now struggle with weight problems, and there is no consensus among the experts over the precise causes. Recommendations for countermeasures range from calls for more government involvement to greater responses from food manufacturers and restaurant operators to better health education of the public.
Recent legislation for the improvement of nutrition standards of school lunches and initiatives like “Let’s Move” to reduce childhood obesity have gotten some traction, but progress remains slow and uncertain, according to the latest report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Overall, there is no significant change in the current trends, and so the battle for America’s health continues unabated. There is general agreement that more, much more needs to be done.
Demands for tougher regulation of industry and policies to influence the behavior of consumers have become louder in recent years, but we have not seen the results we had hoped for. In a recent op-ed article, New York Times columnist Mark Bittman has faulted the current Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, for being “missing in action” in the fight against obesity, especially childhood obesity. On this issue, he writes, “Benjamin, like most of her predecessors, is virtually invisible.” Even with regards to seemingly straight forward measures like curbing children’s exposure to junk food via advertisements on TV or banning soda sales from school campuses, the government remains inexplicably passive. Instead, it still lays most of the blame at the feet of the victims by overemphasizing personal accountability.
Voluntary commitments by food manufacturers and restaurant operators have not produced much success either, despite of ample promises to show more cooperation by making food labels less confusing, offering healthier alternatives on fast food menus, or limiting exposure of kids to food advertisements.
But there is another aspect to this discussion that is often neglected. It is people’s real life experience that is not taken enough into account. By this I don’t mean to lend credence to oversimplifying statements that people are responsible for their own actions and should not blame others for their demise. Those who read my columns and blog posts know very well that I am a strong supporter of many of the measures Mr. Bittman and others are proposing.
Asking folks to make better nutritional choices makes no sense if they live miles and miles away from food outlets that carry fresh produce or in neighborhoods where getting physical exercise is difficult because of safety concerns and lack of public facilities like bike paths and parks. It is also futile to make dietary recommendations that completely ignore financial limits or access to health education.
But still, no matter what we will try from here on in terms of legislation and policy making, changing individual behavior will always play a predominant role. Eating habits are rarely just about food. They are also about stress, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, addiction, past traumatic experiences, and more. By exclusively focusing on the quality and quantity of our food supply, we will not be able to really understand these concerns and make them part of the equation, as they need to be. As they say, all politics are local. And all health issues are personal.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.
Ever since the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) decision to buy seven million pounds of beef byproducts for use in the national school lunch program has made the news, there has been a rare public outcry, not often heard of in connection with food policies in this country.
“Pink slime,” which consists of low-grade beef trimmings, cartilage, connective tissue and other less than appetizing animal parts, ground up, chemically disinfected and pressed into a paste-like substance that can be used as meat filler, has been included in our ground beef supply for decades. According to a report by ABC News, 70 percent of ground beef sold in supermarkets in the U.S. contains these additives. Only certified organic meat is guaranteed to be without.
The USDA has declared “lean finely textured beef” (LFTB) – a more palatable term for “pink slime” – to be “generally safe” for consumption and does not require it to be labeled separately. In other words, unlike almost all other additives, including preservatives and artificial coloring agents, meat fillers don’t have to show up on ingredients lists or nutrition facts labels.
Since meat mixtures are more predisposed to E. coli and salmonella contamination than higher quality cuts, they are treated with a pathogen-killing chemical called ammonium hydroxide, which gives it the pink color. The company that sells ground beef treated with ammonia, Beef Products Incorporated (BPI), considers LFTB not only to be safe, but also nutritious and perfectly suited for school children to eat.
“Including in the national school lunch program’s beef products accomplishes three important goals,” said BPI spokesperson, Rich Jochum. “It improves the nutritional profile, increases the safety of the products and meets budget parameters that allow the school lunch program to feed kids nationwide every day.”
Cost considerations are undoubtedly a factor when the USDA decides what foods will be included in the program that feeds over 30 million kids every day for free or at reduced prices. Meat is expensive and using fillers can make a big difference in the budget. But it is less conceivable why the agency would take such a step at a time when it promotes higher nutrition standards in school cafeterias and urges kids to eat more fruits and vegetables and less empty calories. It’s a mixed message at best.
Even if the use of “pink slime” in the meat supply is safe, it offers no nutritional benefits to speak off. “Not only is this a potential source of killer pathogens if the ammonia levels are not controlled properly, but the overall protein quality of the beef hamburger is compromised by the inclusion of LFTB,” said Dr. Gerald Zirnstein, a microbiologist who worked at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and who is credited with the first coining of the term “pink slime.”
The backlash against the USDA’s decision has been swift and still shows no signs of abating. Within a few days following the first reports in the press and social media, Houston-based food columnist, Bettina Siegel, was able to collect hundreds of thousands of petition signatures against the USDA plans, many from concerned parents. Other initiatives across the country have reported similar responses. The widespread attention and media coverage has prompted several fast food outlets like McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King to announce their discontinuation of LFTB in their ground beef.
In the end, this whole episode may turn into an opportunity for consumers to become more discriminating in their food choices. Even if the government deems certain ingredients to be safe, it doesn’t mean they should not be listed and explained in great detail and plain English for everyone to understand. When it goes in our food in supermarkets, restaurants or school cafeterias, we have the right to know, so we can make informed choices. The USDA of all institutions should not set a bad example of how to avoid scrutiny.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.