“This is a different USDA,” announced Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week on a conference call with members of the public to share information about the agency’s response to First Lady Michelle Obama’s new Let’s Move initiative to combat childhood obesity. The call was a great opportunity to hear about high-up efforts to address the federal school lunch program and more general issues of helping people gain health through nutrition.
From my perspective as a whole foods and local foods advocate, there was much to cheer about what Secretary Vilsack had to say about changes in the school lunch program. As an advocate of traditional foods, however, there are still a lot of concerns to address. If this is a different USDA, I’d still like to wait for the next version.
The four main pillars of the Let’s Move Initiative are to 1) give parents the support they need to make healthy choices (including support for breastfeeding as a healthy start), 2) provide healthier food in schools , 3) promote physical activity, and 4) increase the availability of affordable healthy food.
The Child Nutrition Act was up for reauthorization by Congress in 2009, as it is every five years, but it has been extended through the Agriculture Appropriations Bill and is now up for reauthorization in 2010. The USDA puts out a plan and a budget, and it is up to Congress to decide where the funding will come from and to make adjustments and changes. The purpose for the conference call was to get folks aware of the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization and to describe the efforts of the USDA in light of the Let’s Move initiative.
I’m all for education, and some of these efforts sound great, but I still found myself shaking my head during parts of this call.
First, the heartening news
The USDA is paying attention to the fact that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has produced a report that is highly critical of the quality of school lunches. Secretary Vilsack explained that 31 million children participate in the school lunch program and 11 million in the breakfast program, both of which he said offer foods that have too much sugar and sodium, and not enough dark green and orange vegetables.
Secretary Vilsack said that the USDA wants to give schools incentives make healthy options more appealing to kids. “We are looking for a way in which we can significantly improve foods in school outside of lunch,” Secretary Vilsack said, including a la carte offerings and vending machines. “We want a consistent message” in schools, which would include getting sugary drinks and snacks out of vending machines.
The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program is one effort to get schools connected with local sources of food and to help students see a connection to food. Secretary Vilsack said the USDA is expanding research into organic farming and is trying to increase the number of small businesses in agriculture. “We are looking for creative ways for these guys to make ends meet,” he said, noting that the USDA does not want to arrive at a day and age with just a handful of really large producers and, on the other hand, very small producers.
One of the current areas of research, Secretary Vilsack explained, is how to make nutritious food compelling for children and how to encourage them to make healthy choices. “This requires us to focus on early childhood, to encourage kids at a young age to put a rainbow on their plate,” Secretary Vilsack said. Parents and educators alike need to explain the difference between everyday foods and sometimes foods. There has been work on a textbook and toolkit for parents participating in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program to “get them started in the right direction.”
If parents are more engaged in these kinds of conversations, Vilsack said, perhaps they will be more involved in school board decisions. Sometimes school boards see extra money in their food budget and direct it to another area that needs funding. “Part of our challenge,” Secretary Vilsack said, “is to make sure people understand that this is as important as any other thing that goes on in school.”
In the Q&A portion of the call, Nutritionist and Silicon Valley Moms blogger Alix, the moderator for this call, shared her concern about “nutritional illiteracy” of parents who, for example, don’t realize that Goldfish crackers have a glycemic index as high as a lollipop. Secretary Vilsack responded that we need better labeling so that people know what the better choices are. He spoke highly of a NuVal, a numerical system currently in place in stores in his home state of Iowa that rates items on a scale of 1-100, with 100 being the most nutritious. Having this information helps consumers, he said, which will then lead to better options. “As we make those more nutritious choices,” he said, “the market will be compelled to do better.”
A quick look at the NuVal website shows that 2% Horizon Organic milk gets a rating of 55, while 1% Organic Valley milk gets a much better rating of 81, and Garelick Farms Over the Moon Fat Free Milk gets a super-high rating of 91. Nevermind that the less of the naturally-occurring milkfat you take out of the milk, the harder it is to digest (and that pasteurization kills milk’s enzymes!)
Since NuVal gives Silk Soymilk Light Chocolate a decent rating of 56, I am guessing that this “patent-pending algorithm” does not take hormone and endocrine disruption into consideration. Probably not the difference in products made from grassfed vs. industrial feedlot cows, either. I am just learning about this system and look forward to investigating it further.
What about the food pyramid?
Alix pointed out that the IOM is basing its conclusions on the food pyramid, a construct that many health-minded writers and practitioners find problematic, preferring to look at the way author Michael Pollan talks about what should be in our diets, including the ida that “real food” usually does not contain more than five ingredients.
Secretary Vilsack said that the food pyramid guidelines are going to be revised. With some 20-30 people working on this “extensive effort based on what we didn’t know five, ten years ago,” the pyramid will be adjusted. He explained that what the USDA is going to want to see are “steps being taken by local school districts to better align with the IOM study” and with the new food pyramid guidelines.
There are many areas of concern about the current food pyramid, and it will be interesting to see what the revisions include. For one, traditional foods enthusiasts might want to see the “oils” page differentiate between chemically-produced unhealthy oils like canola oil and margarine compared to naturally-occurring fats that are necessary for optimum absorption of nutrients. Healthy fats include butter and coconut oil, which is not even on the list of oils at http://www.mypyramid.gov/pyramid/oils.html
If the researchers working on the food pyramid are familiar with this research on traditional diets and fats, then perhaps they will veer away from the low-fat craze. But based on Secretary Vilsack’s insistence that we do not have enough of a focus on “low-fat dairy products,” I’m concerned. It’s unfortunate that people think that incomplete foods are somehow better recognized and utilized by our bodies than foods in their natural states (i.e. full fat). The real fats to avoid are manufactured fats like canola oil, corn oil, and soybean oil that were never intended to be removed from the rest of the food and that hold no nutritional value or provide assistance with the absorption of nutrients.
That pesky corn issue
Alix asked Secretary Vilsack if we could get a commitment that school lunches would not have foods with more than five ingredients and if the school lunch program will respond to parent desire to get high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) out of all foods that cross the school threshold. The answer, in short, was no. “I’m not sure we’d be a prescriptive as that,” Secretary Vilsack began. This might get pushback from members of Congress, so the better way to go, he said, is for the USDA to push for incentives for schools to make better options available. “What we can say is that food has to be consistent with dietary guidelines.” And then, he said, we have to trust people.
The next concern came from Sophia, a mother whose children’s school lunches are run by a private company that has told her it has gotten questionable food off of its menu except for “what the government sends us,” which includes HFCS and meat raised with hormones and antibiotics. She questioned the subsidy system that makes it profitable for farmers to grow genetically-modified corn. Secretary Vilsack initially respondd that organic farmers can qualify for a number of USDA regular programs in which they can receive direct payments if they raise “certain crops.” And he added that the USDA under the Obama administration has increased its participation in conservation programs that the Bush administration tried to get rid of.
Secretary Vilsack thought that roughly one-quarter of what is provided to schools is in the form of commodities, adding “If a district is insistent on what they want for their kids, we need to figure out how to be more responsive to their needs.” But he went on to explain that in the U.S., “we’re going to continue to grow corn for a lot of reasons.” This includes corn as a source of power, and Secretary Vilsack went on to reference other alternative power sources being developed. The USDA is not, he said, going to stop providing resources to those who grow corn but will try to support more mid-size farms.
Where to go now?
The call inspired me not so much to sing the praises of the Child Nutrition Act but simply to continue to share my concerns about mainstream ideas about food, problematic ideas that include promoting whole grains (despite a lot of research that says many people have gluten sensitivities) as a health food and low-fat dairy as a necessary ingredient in the fight against childhood obesity. We were healthier when we ate real food with full fat and not so darn much bread!
Although my son is not yet in public school, I look forward to learning more about the efforts Secretary Vilsack referenced and how they are being implemented in my local area. As a chapter leader with Holistic Moms Network, I will continue to try to educate my community about healthy eating. I hope to find ways to make healthy food more widely available and to share information about how to access affordable healthy food.